November 30, 2012

Spiking the Eggnog: A Christmas Playlist



I promised you all a holiday mix, and by golly, I keep my promises. Oh, and you can bet you’ll be getting your fill of jingle bells in its hour long run time. I recommend getting your own jingle bells (I have some- I asked my parents for jingle bells for Christmas when I was seven after reading The Polar Express, and probably because I wanted to dovetail the gift into a successful solo Christmas album).

This year’s mix, accurately christened “spiking the eggnog” for what we will all be doing with both friends and families, is structured in a way that I believe the holiday season is. One half childish joy and wonder at the beginning of the season where everything sparkles and shines, and the other half shaky depression brought on by the bludgeoning of commercialism, high expectations of what joy we are “supposed” to be feeling, and the realization that family is really extraordinarily annoying sometimes. Also, specifically for me, the despair I feel when I realize that I don’t have much money to buy loved ones anything, and that my crafty skills are somewhat limited to poorly decoupaging cardboard boxes, or crayon drawings, both of which apparently stopped being adorable around middle school.

The first part of the mix is Joy. At least, a realistic sense of it. From Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas Baby” to The Supremes’ “Silver Bells” I tinseled the list with all sorts of shiny, sometimes subversively, happy songs. Not necessarily songs that Rudolph would put on his pre-Christmas Eve workout mix, but songs that connect to the spectrum of seasonal joy. For instance, Bahamas’ cover of The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” leans on a warm burnished guitar line that glows with restful bliss. This isn’t summer joy, all buzzing and sun drunk and scampering all over a flowered earth bursting with self-endowed ornament.

This is winter joy. Winter is when the world shakes off the last of its show-offy costuming, and we are left to find joy in the stark nakedness. You know what I love the most about December? We decorate it. We decorate the skeletal world. We can choose how to see our world for this one month, and whether we choose to look out the window in the glow of the tree or menorah, or slip slide down the slick streets, let’s allow for whatever warms us.

And then comes the sad half.


What happens when the lights are shining right in your window and you can’t sleep? When the winter closes in, and you can’t possibly bear the idea of going to any parties with people who suddenly laugh so much louder than normal. Why do people laugh so much louder at Christmas parties?? ARE THE JOKES THAT MUCH FUNNIER? WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU HIDING BEHIND YOUR PLASTIC HOLIDAYGLITTERPERSON MASK???

Just stay in, baby. Get a blanket, maybe a good friend who laughs at a regular volume. The holidays can be a perfect storm of awful expectations and emptying pockets and feeling left out or feeling inundated with obligation.

Which is why the second part of my playlist begins with The Beach Boys’ “Merry Christmas, Baby”, because shouldn’t life’s terrible stuff stop when all the companies are telling us we are required to be joyful? Thank you, Macy’s, I’ll try to pretend I live in a red and green disco ball if it’ll help your profit margins. Honey, this month is no time to abandon our humanity. No one is happy all the time, no matter if you have Christmas Spirit leaking out your ears.

So on those nights, watch A Muppet Christmas Carol and put on your warmest socks. You’ve got nowhere to be, because baby, it’s cold outside. But you’ll warm up soon enough.

I like to end a divided mix like this with a song that isn’t really either that happy or that sad. I capped off this mix with Sufjan Stevens’ “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, his take on the classic hymn that most people raised or exposed to the Christian faith will have sung reluctantly in church next to their mother who, bless her heart, sings notes that haven’t heretofore been heard on Earth, in keys that haven’t been discovered yet.

When I heard this song, I was seventeen. One of my best friends had given me the box set of Sufjan’s Christmas songs. I still have the weird poster with Sufjan’s weird fake family somewhere…

I have three Sufjan Christmas songs on this mix. One from his recent release, Silver and Gold, and two from the first box set of five EPs, called Songs For Christmas. The two from that previous release are songs that actually saved Christmas for me. I never much liked it when I was a teenager. It had somehow lost its magic somewhere mid-high school. My mom always decorates the house beautifully, and we have these little Santa villages set up everywhere. Every available surface is filled with beautiful antique Santas, and handmade garland that drapes and winds through the house like suddenly I lived in a mystical forest. At the time I was really, really into Lord of the Rings, so pretending it was Fangorn Forest helped.

But I was a teenager, and suddenly had all these feelings and wasn’t so easily brought in by the holiday season and I didn’t want to listen to ANY MORE MANHEIM STEAMROLLER PLEASE.

Then I listened to Sufjan, and he wrote the single best modern Christmas song I’ve heard, “Sister Winter” which still brings me to my knees. Then he took a hymn I always thought was toe-numbingly boring, and made it hold all these human hopes and sadnesses and doubts, and I guess that’s just it…

This is the human time. We’re all doing our best. Now go hug someone, put up the lights.

Happy Holidays to all of you. Just don’t ever put on Manheim Steamroller again.


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