We all have Christmas songs we love and those we hate. I’m making a list and checking it twice for the ones I hate. It includes the following:
The Little Drummer Boy because the rumpapapum drives me nuts, and I’ve never been able to visualize how the ox and lamb kept time. Besides, it’s just too cute.
Feliz Navidad because once you hear it, you can’t get it out of your head.
Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer for obvious reasons. Like, it’s stupid.
And then there’s one I can never remember the name of, but it goes ringdingaling ringdingaling ringdingaling ringdingaling ringdingaling ringdingaling rindingaling ringdingaling ringdingaling ringdingaling. You may have heard it. It’s my candidate to add to the current national discussion about torture.
So much for those I’m not fond of.
There are some very fine winter songs that don’t mention Christmas, like Sleigh Ride, Winter Wonderland, Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, Let It Snow!, Baby, It’s Cold Outside. These are songs we could be listening to and singing way into January and February, maybe even March, but not too far into March. But there must be some disgruntled gnome who grabs them up with the Christmas songs at the exact second after midnight on December 26 because once Christmas is over, you never hear them any more.
When to stop and start playing Christmas songs is an ongoing dilemma. I imagine DJs in radio stations having heated arguments about it. Something akin to the question of when to put the Christmas displays into shopping centers and malls. I refuse to enter malls anytime between Halloween and Thanksgiving because I don’t want to jar my sense of seasonal appropriateness with early Santas and wreaths and elves. But this practice doesn’t work anymore. Now I go into the mall before Halloween and find elves.
But getting back to the songs. I sort of remember a time when radio stations didn’t play any Christmas songs until one week before Christmas. And then they played them non-stop. Some years during that week I thought I was going to be Perry-Como-ed to death. More recently I’ve noticed special stations that play nothing but Christmas songs, and it seems they are up and broadcasting the Friday after Thanksgiving along with people lined up in dark parking lots to get the jump on other shoppers at those fabulous sales that only occur on the day after Thanksgiving. I also have vague memories from very long ago when you might hear an occasional Christmas song off and on during early December, but nothing overwhelming, just a tad to whet your appetite. Then you’d hear more and more of them as the awaited holiday got nearer. The rhythm of this, the anticipation, coincided with my boyhood hunger for presents. This seemed to be extremely appropriate timing to hear Christmas songs.
But no matter when they start, everyone, so it seems, agrees to stop them on December 26, even the winter songs that have no reference to Christmas.
I have no gripe with Christmas songs or light displays, at least in theory. This is the time of maximum darkness and silence. Human beings, so we’re told, have always created light and sound to fill the void at this time of year. We need light. We needed it even before we discovered Seasonal Affective Disorder. We need sound in this time of silence when the winds and rains of spring are far off, as are the bird songs we hear in the pre-dawn hours of summer mornings, and the buzz and hum of insects, the throbbing pulse-beat of cicadas in August, and the drying, dying leaves rustling in the fall. We do need sound in these months of silence. And we always need song.
I can easily forget each year when I’m bombarded by the Christmas displays and the inescapable holiday music that beneath the frivolousness and crassness we can find in our consumer culture, there is an age-old desire on the part of humans to find light and sound to get us through this cold, silent, and somewhat colorless season. We need tidings of comfort and joy — and more than that — we need actual comfort and joy.
I try not to look at the 15-foot Santa balloons that always look a bit deflated and tipsy, swaying like drunks, on front lawns. I turn off the radio when the ringdingaling ringdingaling ringdingaling begins (which is probably why I can’t remember the name of that song). And I try to recall that what we are doing was done by our ancestors many generations before us in ways that made sense to them. They had fewer resources and material wealth than we do, but they built a yule fire, lit candles, sang songs, found color and beauty in evergreen boughs, red holly berries, and white sparkling snow.
And I must admit, I eagerly hope to hear the songs I really like — even though I’m a bit perplexed as to why they are on some people’s “hate list.” These include the following:
The Twelve Days of Christmas because we celebrate all twelve of them in our house and wouldn’t think of taking the tree down until after January 6. There’s also something medieval about this song that satisfies my yearning for earlier times. There was a brief period some years ago when the Muppets’ version almost ruined it for me, but eventually I learned to appreciate Miss Piggy’s “five go-o-o-o-o-lden rings.”
The Chipmunk Song: Santa Don’t Be Late because I like to imagine that they all grew up and became the Bee Gees.
I also like O Holy Night because it’s dramatic and schmaltzy, and I think I’ve always resonated to the idea of falling on your knees. There do seem to be things in this world we should adore.
But whatever songs we sing, whatever lights we rig up, I love this season for its underlying quiet and its darkness and its challenge to find color and softness. I love the long nights. I love deep and dreamless sleep. I love watching the silent stars go by.