Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Christmas Songs

Ramsey Lewis--"Here Comes Santa Claus" (mp3)

"I hate "Here Comes Santa Claus," my daughter said yesterday. "It's the worst Christmas song. It's so lazy."

You know how it goes:

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus
Right down Santa Claus Lane
Vixen and Blitzen and all his reindeer
Pullin' on the reins, etc.

Not even knowing that the song was written by Gene Autrey, the singing cowboy, I immediately rose to the song's defense. "I like it," I said, "it's the only song that connects Santa Claus and Christianity."

Can you think of another one?

"Here Comes Santa Claus" makes a Christian connection to Santa Claus throughout its verses, with lines like "Hang your stockings and say your prayers/'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight" and "Santa Claus knows we're all God's children/That makes everything right" and the one that I remembered immediately when my daughter criticized the song, "Let's give thanks to the Lord above/That Santa Claus comes tonight."

Autry boldly goes where other Christmas songs don't do--they're either religious or secular.

"Here Comes Santa Claus" reminds us of that sometimes-forgotten need to create religions that human beings, as a species, have. It reminds us that the more "modern" religions are, of course, going to draw on some of the characteristics and stories of the older one and try to blend them into something coherent. Jesus and the Easter Bunny. Grendel and Cain and Satan. Most of the time, we like to think that, yeah, we're basically done with religion, that all of the good ones have already been created, but even something as annoying as the primary campaign of Mitt Romney tells us that, much as we may not like it, we will have to confront religions that are "too new." Maybe not this time around, but soon.

Meanwhile, "Here Comes Santa Claus" slips innocuously into our consciousnesses each year and posits God as the power behind the red-clothed man slipping down chimneys. I kind of like that. Just as Cotton Mather spoke of the "unseen world," many of us in this modern, over-analyzed, supposedly-quantified world still hunger for the mystery of things. It probably explains why my friends' children have such a hard time letting go of that elf. For all the talk of Santa, they never really see much tangible evidence (parents gobbling down cookies and carrots aside), but the elf who moves and gets in trouble and responds, well, maybe, just maybe, there's a chance. As with the other cosmic unknowns we hope might be true.


For as much Christmas music as I listen to, there is only one song that can actually move me to tears, or at least to misty eyes. Oh, there are many that I respond, remembering nostalgically my childhood or my deceased mother or my lost youth, there are ones that make me wistful, contemplative, even worshipful. But only one stirs my emotions so much that I tear up.

The surprising thing is that the song is "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues, with Kristy MacColl.

Set in a New York jail, in a "drunk tank," it's a kind of flashback/reminiscence/update of a relationship between a man and a woman who started out their relationship with such hope and ended up, well, in a drunk tank. When they talk of how they first met and kissed, their language is positive and romantic, when they ponder their current state, they are downright hateful as they trade insults back and forth:

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

Hardly the stuff to make people weep, eh? Perhaps as much as anything, it's the melody that gets me, especially the soaring part where the "boys from the NYPD choir still [sing] 'Galway Bay'/And the bells are ringin' out for Christmas Day." But I don't think so, though I do love that part. There's something sweet about the song, something that has both parties acknowledging that the American Dream didn't quite come true and that they've seen the worst that each has to offer to the other, but they still haven't quite given up.

The song says that the birth on Christmas offers a chance for rebirth for the rest of us, and the song, for all of its vulgarity, hammers that point home. It's a reminder of failure and defeat, disappointment and despair. But somehow that also makes it a celebration of a special day, a day of hope against hope. And I'll always cry for hope.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late, great Kristy MacColl.


Anonymous said...

Question: Rank the singing cowboys. Do you have Roy Rogers at 1 or Gene Autry?

troutking said...

Very insightful analysis--great post, Bob. Most emotionally affecting Christmas song for me---Father Christmas by the Kinks. Kind of cuts through the easy sentimentality of the holiday to remind us that Christmas is just another day to scrape by for some people.

stowstepp said...

I've got a fairly new Christmas favorite. Check out Winterbloom's "Thanks for the Roses". Antje Duvekot has written a beauty.

Anonymous said...

You don’t know much about the history of Christmas do you? Unbelievable stupidity