Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kringles In The Hot Tub, Christmas On The Radio

Have you ever been hit on by Mrs. Claus?

I have.

Nothing says Christmas like Mrs. Claus asking me if I've been naughty with my wife as we pose for a picture with her and Santa.

Or she insisting that I join in a photo and sit on her lap.

Such is life when my wife loves Christmas more than I ever could, and insists on seeing Santa Claus despite being in her late 30s.

I oblige, and suddenly I find myself in the story time room at the local Barnes & Noble.

We're the only adults in the winding line without any children, but no one was looking at us funny. At least, I don't think so. Or maybe they thought our kid was running around the aisles until it was our turn. Who knows? All I do know is that Mrs. Claus got fresh with me after she jokingly wagged a finger at my wife for sitting on Santa's lap.

This is adults meeting Santa Claus. Which, I guess, evolves into the Kringles nearly inviting us back to the North Pole for hot tubbing and a view of Santa's other workshop.

Ah, Christmas. It grips us all in candy cane clutches. There is no escape from this parade of joy and jingle bells, which has moved up from Santa Claus walking down the Thanksgiving Day parade's lane, to stockings hung by the trick-or-treating pails in the Target.

After the first week of December, I already was pretty Christmased out. What else can you be, after five consecutive nights of holiday-themed parties, marketplaces and gatherings? How many horse-drawn carriage rides can one witness? I have bought so many beautiful handmade goods that they're handmaking themselves at this point.

I'm gargling in garland. Canoodling with candlelit windows. Ribald with ribbons. Junked up on jolly. Chirping with cheer. Partridged in a pear tree. Crawling with crafts.

But I persevere. I trudge through the snow and flashing lights and lawn reindeer. Because I love Christmas. It's the only birthday I really celebrate other than my own, and it's the only one that may be more fun. It's so much fun that I'll even listen to the all-Christmas-all-the-time radio station every day.

Tell me what is better than Christmas music. I'm waiting. I don't hear anything. That's right, there's nothing better. Well, nothing better when done right.

So let's take a trip through some of my favorite Christmas tunes.

“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms

Christmas and rockabilly?

Yes please.

This is my favorite secular Christmas song. Gentle swing, that great guitar intro, Helms' straightforward singing with a bit of twang.

Plus this song always makes me think of watching G.E. Smith on SNL at Christmastime.

He slayed that intro, every freakin' year.

“Happy Holiday / The Holiday Season” by Andy Williams

Jazz and Christmas work incredibly well, and this rendition by Andy Williams is a jazz-infused pop that was still a thing in the 1950s.

Listen to that call-and-response in “he'll be coming down the chimney, down.” The slangifying of secular Christmas traditions – “big fat pack upon his back” – plays against the pop-gibberish of “hoop-de-do and dickery-dock.” Cue those trumpets. It doesn't matter that it's Williams, who's so old and whitebread that I first heard of him on that Simpsons episode where it was a joke that bully Nelson Muntz would cry listening to Williams sing “Ol' Man River” at a concert in Branson, Missouri. But what can I say?

Cheesy works at Christmas.

“The Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth” by Bing Crosby and David Bowie

Oh, my stars.

There's already the pop-culture kitsch of the on-death's-door Crosby (he died months after recording this) and the cocained-and-heroined 1977 edition of Bowie, where the accidental meeting on the TV special felt more real than they probably meant.

And that hideous dialogue!

But then they combine for a tiny bit of Christmas magic.

Bowie reportedly balked at singing “The Little Drummer Boy” because he disliked the song and felt it didn't show off his voice, so the “Peace on Earth” bit was made up for the show. And it's beautiful. It's not Christmas for me until I hear this song. “Every child must be made aware / Every child must be made to care / Care enough for his fellow man / And give all the love that he can.” If only I could see the day of glory when men of good will live in peace.

“The Christmas Song” by Mel Tormé

Yes, there are many, many, many versions of this classic. Nat “King” Cole's rendition is iconic and likely in the Top 5 of all-time best Christmas songs.

No one can touch it, it's so obviously beautiful. So instead I'll pick out the version recorded by the man who co-wrote the song, Mel Tormé.

I mostly know Tormé as Harry Anderson's favorite singer on Night Court, but listen to this. So smooth and delicate. But when he closes with the refrain from “Here We Come A-Wassailing” … beautiful.

I can see the candles in the windows.

“Merry Christmas, Darling” by The Carpenters

I grew up in the '80s, so I only knew of The Carpenters from standup comedians as a joke about cheesy '70s music, and that Karen Carpenter died from anorexia – which sometimes was part of the joke.

(How, don't ask me.)

So I just assumed The Carpenters were lame. Never mind that I grew up listening to Luther Vandross sing “Superstar,” capturing all the pain and heartache of its pleading voice. It wasn't until years later that I found out that originally was Karen Carpenter's voice. “Merry Christmas, Darling” stops my heart every time I hear it.

Something about that purr of a voice that combines impeccable technique with sweetness, an understated sexiness, and a touch of melancholy. I also love when people end songs with swelling, harmonized voices as the music stops.

“Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt

Need some sexy with your Christmas? Look no further. Kitt makes this song quite funny despite all its tongue-in-cheek bawdiness, and a value system of male-female relations that makes most modern ears cringe.

But Kitt plays the coquette well, her trademark purr belying masterful vocal delivery and stop-on-a-dime timing. She is not beholden to “Santa” in this goods-for-companionship arrangement. Instead, if he wants to see her anytime he wants, then she can't be bothered with a dayjob and needs to be provided for. And that sometimes men buy things for the women they love as a token of appreciation.

Plus, hey, she's asking for the deed to that platinum mine, a duplex, a blank checkbook … don't hate the player, hate the game. But she's walking away with wealth, not just things.

Madonna's version is treacly oversexed and sounds actually whorish.

And Taylor Swift just totally misses the point and instead sounds like a little girl playing dress-up.

No one can touch this song other than Kitt.

No one.

“Silent Night” by The Temptations

No one does Christmas music better than classic R&B singers. And this is the epic ballad of classic R&B Christmas music. The pinnacle that never will be surpassed.

The preamble quoting “The Night Before Christmas” featuring Melvin Franklin's bass. The majestic smoothness of Eddie Kendricks' clear-as-a-bell high tenor. Dennis Edwards taking it to gospel: “Go on and rest your miiiiiiind and sleeeeeeeeep” as he skyrockets into that high note. A beat seen in both a slow-sway gospel choir or a romantic ballad. They are singing love to Jesus and praying for freedom and peace.

You feel every note. Perfection.

Merry Christmas, from The Temptations. Amen!

“Nativitie” by Rodney Lister and The Choir of the Church of the Advent

This setting of John Donne's poem has what you miss from a lot of Christmas music these days. It reaches back into the biblical Christmas story, and the fear, wonder and beauty of a hope of a new day born on a cold winter's night.

Lister creates dissonant, striking harmonies, and ponderous cadences that bring me back to my Catholic past, lighting candles and standing vigil at Mass.

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