Christmas songs

not necessarily “carols”

twas the night before….(C) 2018 Carol Joy Shannon

I know a thing or two about Christmas carols. I am one, after all.

“Carol” originally meant “joyful song,” and also was originally a “circle dance.” I learned the dance part from an historical novel, because they kept referring to the heroine being asked to “dance to the carols.” I thought that was rather odd, until I did some etymology research on it. It appears to have come from early French, and may even go back to Roman times. But “Christmas carols” was the one that stuck.

Most of us associate Christmas carols with songs about faith, Jesus’ birth, the Wise Men from the East, angels and the various animals in the stable in Bethlehem. Sometimes they’re about old kings and poor people staying warm and other inspirational pieces, but, generally “carols” have to do with Jesus’ birth, as they should. That is what Christmas is about.

Somewhere in the 20th Century, though, other Christmas themed music started to emerge. People like Irving Berlin penned sentimental ballads about home and family and “our favorite things.” Then came the Christmas themed loved songs…..

And finally, the novelty songs, like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.

By the Fifties and Sixties, when crooners like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Andy Williams all had their own television shows, everyone had to have a Christmas song. Bing and Andy made a business out of them, and most of the standards associated with Christmas sound like one of them, or are one of them.

When Elvis had a huge hit with “Blue Christmas,” every performer alive started working on their “signature Christmas song.” Brenda Lee may have beat him to it with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but really most people who tried the ploy failed so miserably it is a wonder it didn’t sink their careers.

The only other pop star to really nail it was Maria Carey, whose 1994 hit, “All I Want for Christmas is You” recently became a THE #1 Christmas Song of ALL Time, just this year. (You can read about it here. It’s pretty impressive.) I’ve got to admit, I sing along every time it comes on.

That song is clearly a rarity in any genre. It has made #1 every year (at Christmas) since it came out. It touches something for everyone. The music itself is really likeable, with some changeups and choruses that make it soar. Her voice, of course, has always been an instrument of wonder, whether you like her or not. And the sentiment is just right.

That’s the hard part: the sentiment.

For some reason, along the way, while everyone who ever made music was making Christmas songs and albums — Christmas became the center of romance. Half the Christmas pop canon is a form of love song, either someone longing to share the holiday with another; just wanting to be with someone, or having lost a love. You know. Romance. Kind of like country songs, without the beer and pickups.

(Although at our house, if we don’t sing along with “Merry Christmas from the Family” by Robert Earl Keene at least once….well. But more on the funny songs in a minute.)

When did Christmas become a Hallmark love story?

And why?

My theory is that it started during one of the “world wars” — probably “World War II.” The world was coming off the horror of the first war, had struggled though a huge Depression, and many were separated by oceans from loved ones in danger. A lot to be lovelorn about. That’s my theory, anyway.

Because the Christmas themed pop songs are all love songs now.

Everyone has tried the genre. Everyone. KISS made a Christmas album. Just sayin’.

The ones that return year after year are the standards. Songs like “White Christmas” and “Chestnuts….” have been covered by everyone, and a few of the good versions remain, to be enjoyed every year.

John and I have a few categories of Christmas music and those guys are in “the mobbed-up Christmas” category. Dean’s got a few good covers, and Frank does at least one. All of the songs sound like lounge songs, and you can picture them leaning on the piano, smoking cigarettes, with a Vegas swing band behind them. Singing about snow … and baby Jesus.

We like the “mobbed-up Christmas” because they sound familiar, so we sing along.

But in the search for their own “Blue Christmas” or “Rudolph…” many otherwise excellent performers have fallen down. Badly. Most just seem to be trying too hard. Some people should have just left it to Johnny Mathis, Andy and Bing.

We have a number of composite CDs of Christmas music, a few of which have become old standbys, but lately I like to just listen to a mix online. There are many to choose from, from jazz instrumentals, contemporary artists, standards, country, and so on.

You can also pick by “time.” As in “10 Hour Fireplace” mix (which has a nice virtual fireplace in a traditional room to give your laptop a glow.) That one had way too many of the really awful songs right off the bat, though, so I tried the top 300, which also started with the worst first. (Some of them are really bad. They can ruin that particular 3 minutes of your life.)

Not trusting the “100 Best” – I’m sticking with “Christmas 2019 – 2 Hours” on Mixerbox…you can try it here.

It is my favorite mix of old Blue Eyes and his Ocean’s Eleven crew, some other standards by TV crooners, the hits, including a couple by Elvis, and even Mariah. It’s a pretty good mixture. There are even some surprises, like a terrific “Carol of the Bells” and “Ave Maria.” Beautiful real carols, too, performed with choirs and orchestras. (There’s no songlist, so I’m guessing at a lot of the artists I don’t immediately recognize.)

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is usually part of any collection, and this mix version is decent. Our favorite version is by the Muppets and John Denver. Miss Piggy gets the “5 golden rings” –and makes the most of it every time. “bdump…dump…” And Beaker has a glorious high part. John’s son Taylor and I are very fond of that one. We love to sing, whether anyone else loves our singing or not. It’s one of the joys of Christmas.

Early in this mix is Chuck Berry and “Run Run Rudolph” — a song I had thankfully forgotten, but which has been growing on me the more I hear it this year. Not growing on me is “Christmas in Harlem,” which sounds a bit like Louis Armstrong. It falls in to the “trying too hard” category. Sorry. There’s an equally horrible rendition of a standard hymn done by a woman we probably all know and otherwise love, like Louis, and she just should have stayed on the couch that day. And a “Jingle Bells” I wish I’d never heard…John even created a new category for that one: dive bar Christmas.

Some songs don’t bear the march of time, either. Even in the songs we love, there are phrases that make no sense any more. Like that old “bob-tailed nag,” which was the sleigh horse, but who’s seen one of those lately. And one of the favorites, “Let it Snow” almost got cancelled by the political correctness police a few years ago. The novelty songs are usually the first to go, because the cultural references fade away. In “my mix,” for example, “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” shows up. I haven’t heard that anywhere for many years. It sounds very dated, too.

The Muppets and John Denver are in the “novelty” category, even though the song is a standard — it’s hilarious to listen to, but check out the video! What I didn’t realize was that the video of that version is different from the album version (which has Dr. Bunson Honeydew and Beaker), or that the Muppets have performed and recorded this song many times! As with all things today, you can go down that rabbit hole here.

Also in the novelty category, of course, is “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” irreverent, pretty funny. “Rudolph” would be in that category, but he’s become a cultural icon. The Grinch could be in that category, too, and I always enjoy that fun! The Chipmunks started out as a novelty Christmas act, and may have run their course. One of their “covers” is on one of our compilation CDs.

There are some “niche” genres, too. Like “Hawaiian Christmas songs.” My husband knows all those, for whatever reason I have no idea, but we even have an Hawaiian print Santa hat for him. That group probably grew up around the Pacific theatre in WWII, because the one on my 2019 mix is “Christmas on Christmas Island.”

But I cannot leave the “novelty” section without sharing Robert Earl Keene. We may not be rednecks, and many of us don’t drink or smoke any more. You may never have actually been to a white trash Christmas, either. But you gotta admit – it’s funny. The oldest video is here. Evidently Robert Earl has also built an industry around a single Christmas song, touching the universal chord of the the occasionally crazy combinations of family and friends at holidays.

We have all known some of these people — you know you have — even if you don’t live in the South! I’ve used “I cain’t remember how we’re kin to them” on regular occasions. Especially now that I’m one of the two oldest people left for family to ask…..

But, when it comes to my personal Christmas mix, I still like to have the old standards, sung by people who can carry a tune. And real Christmas carols are a must, preferably with those choirs and orchestras in the background…

…my name, after all, is Carol Joy. They are integral to who I am as a person. We won’t dive into my family’s Christian devotion to the holiday here. We’ve still got a few days left in the “12.” But it is the reason for the season, hence those real carols with choirs.

Hope you enjoy the links and maybe share some of your favorites. It’s the only time of year where everyone knows some songs. Take this opportunity to sing along. Singing is really good for the soul. And the lungs. And the heart.

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