Holiday Gestures

But Special's finest track is the reworked "Santa Baby," on which a host of rappers -- including Run (of Run DMC), Snoop Doggy Dogg, Salt 'N Pepa and Puff Daddy -- contrast a rapacious Christmas consumer culture with the holiday's deeper message of giving and love to create a slinky jam that challenges, among other things, racial paternalism. Credited to Rev. Run and the Christmas All-Stars, "Santa Baby" stands out as one of the season's very best Christmas tunes, if only because it so completely believes in the power of Christmas -- and of its music -- to make a difference. (*** 1/2)

The 22-song Holiday Feast, Vol. 2 (proceeds from which go to help the homeless in the nation's capital) doesn't feature big names to rival those on Special, but it is filled with a fine variety of holiday roots rock, country and folk music. Bill Kirchen's tackling of Del Reeves's over-the-road country classic "Truckin' Trees for Christmas," the Wrong Brothers' hillbilly "My Christmas Wish Came True" and The Kennedys' devout cover of Steve Earle's "Nothing but a Child" are just three of the CD's more impressive numbers. With the exception of a few zany selections that miss the mark (one tune is about a guy who wants a "Hee Haw Honey" for Christmas), Feast offers a heaping helping-hand of holiday music. (*** 1/2)

An assemblage of 12 previously released tracks that swerve crazily through calypso, cowboy, lounge, blues, medieval and choral styles, Xmas Marks the Spot is easily the most eclectic compilation of the season. And as such, it's also one of the season's most uneven collections. Still, "Jesus Christ," an early-'70s cult classic from proto-alt-rockers Big Star, is worth the purchase price alone. The song's message -- that the world can be remade, justice will be done, peace found -- speaks to Christians and non-Christians alike. (***)

This message of justice and peace is a radical, even revolutionary, one, and in one form or another it's the point of most of the best Christmas music. Even a furious cry of punk anger such as Everclear's "Hating You for Christmas" (a hidden track on the band's new So Much for the Afterglow) comes from being alone with your misery on a day that's supposed to be devoted to community. In a more explicitly political sense, the disparity between what is and what should be is what pushed Steve Earle to write "Christmas in Washington" (the lead cut from his otherwise non-Christmas CD El Corazon). "So come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now/ Tear your eyes from paradise and rise again somehow," Earle pleads, and before he's done he's added Emma Goldman, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to his Christmas wish list. "Christmas in Washington" is a prayer for peace that knows believing isn't enough. Christmas spirit has to be more than an event; it has to be a process that lasts all year long.

Appropriately, the 1997 release that most completely believes in the power of the season is Snowed In, from teen (and preteen) heartthrobs Hanson, who've been widely dismissed as kid's stuff. In songs that draw heavily on the rock, pop and soul tradition, the Hanson brothers sing about the tragic, transitory nature of life, and how faith in love and community can pull us through. Who else but children could sing this stuff with a straight face?

Still, it's that willingness to believe in ideas larger than themselves that makes the Hanson boys the perfect candidates to make an enduring Christmas statement. From rocking covers of Christmas classics such as Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run" to a gospel-filled version of "O Holy Night," Snowed In is one huge gesture after another. Biggest of all is one of the Hansons' own songs, "Christmas Time." "We've been blessed by the children," the brothers sing. "They believe in the things we try to deny / So throw down your weapons but continue to fight / And love one another on this holy night." (*****)

Put into action, those lyrics might even remake the world. And that's Christmas in a nutshell.

-- David Cantwell

***** Silent, holy night, calm and bright
**** Silent night, holy night, calm
*** Silent night, holy night
** Silent night
* Turn down the damn

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