Come Oh Ye Faithful: What Makes a Christmas Song Shine?

"He spoke to me of a kinder, gentler time: of cardigan sweaters and sheet music, of introducing yourself to your new neighbours."

Ours is a house divided. To be clear, no one under this roof disagrees over U.S. President-Elect, who shall remain unnamed. No, I’m talking about Christmas songs. 

Specifically, I’m talking David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s 1977 chestnut, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy.” The collaboration defies logic, yet, for reasons unclear to me, continues to endure. In an effort to better understand the other side (tolerance if you will?) I asked my other-half to help walk me through the mindset of a typical “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” fan.

He spoke to me of a kinder, gentler time: of cardigan sweaters and sheet music, of introducing yourself to your new neighbours. David visiting the old guy down the road strikes chord in his heart, he says. I mention that David’s quite possibly completely out of his tree. He responds, “but nobody is alone at Christmas.” I concede – nostalgia for a simpler time is clearly a strong, if not, irrational force to be reckoned with.

One of my personal favourites has to be Mariah Carey’s 1994 “All I want for Christmas is You.” Mariah under the tree, Mariah riding a Ski-Doo, Mariah dancing and singing with Santa in a bangin’ red snowsuit. An absolute classic with which I can find no fault.

The 1990s are my kinder, gentler time. Nostalgia. Is there anything more to a classic Christmas song than this? Could it really be so simple? In an effort to flesh out this hypothesis, I asked a few musician friends to elaborate on their own favourite Christmas classics.

It seems there are two distinct categories of classic Christmas jams: “Hanging out by the fire drinking,, and “Get thee to church, it’s the one time of year you go (and you’re going to earn it!).” Kelly McMichael (Renders) shies away from the latter. “I’m not big on a lot of Christmas music…old fashioned music tends to creep me out…the Christianity and racism and sexism seems to seep out of the choirs or something…”

I sympathize with McMichael; we’re living in crazy times. Instead, McMichael opts for the 1965 mega classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” giving a special shout-out to “Christmas time is here.”

“The Vince Guaraldi trio does such a nice, warm, soothing job… that music just makes me feel good. It’s the cool, calming kind of jazz. Pretty, twinkly piano and warm standup bass and soft symbol splashes…dreamy.”  Translation: drinking by the fire.

Danielle Hamel (It Could Be Franky, Land of the Lakes) singled out “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” “I’ve always liked Death Cab for Cutie’s version.” Her partner Matthew Thomson (Land of the Lakes) likes The Raveonette’s version. (Wait, did Bono not write this?) Hamel adds, “I think it lends itself well to being a melancholic holiday song.” Translation: definitely drinking by the fire.

For his part Thomson tipped his hat to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” “It’s a haunting, solemn song.” Translation: Get thee to church then reward yourself by drinking, preferably by a fire.

As I continue to contemplate 2016’s big, brash finale, I’m left longing for that kinder, gentler time, alcohol, and possibly prayer. I return to “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” with fresh ears to find David and Bing joined together for a bridge that seems wholly tailored for these times:

“Every child must be made aware, every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man, to give all the love that he can.”

Here’s Land of the Lake’s version of “O Come Emmanuel”

And a video for “(Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”

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