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Holiday Gestures

The Grinch hated Christmas, we were told by Dr. Seuss, because of "all the noise, noise, noise." But in the beginning, at least, Christmas day can actually be extremely quiet. It's become something of a Christmas-morning ritual of mine to drive through my neighborhood's temporarily deserted streets. At a time when the boulevards would normally be filled with traffic -- and when our hearts and minds would typically be teeming with the noisy fears that drive our days -- everything resounds with the booming silence of rebirth.

It always overwhelms me to see this quiet victory of community. It's a reminder that Christmas is a symbol, a gesture. And gestures, while not always capable of changing the world, are essential to regirding our spirits. Whatever religious or secular beliefs we have about Christmas, we truly have to believe. If we don't, as Ernest Tubb once sang, Christmas is just another day.

Aside from gift giving, the holiday gesture more of us share than any other is music. It's caroling that the Grinch heard as he stood cold and alone on the mountain above Whoville. And it finally softened his cynical heart. The Christmas carols we choose to sing and to play also help fill us with the spirit. My favorites are those performances that express the unsatisfied yearnings for peace and community that, to me, are the holiday's true message: Bing Crosby crooning, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas"; Sinatra, in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," struggling to convince himself that "next year all our troubles will be miles away"; Elvis imagining a world where "Every Day Was Like Christmas." The best music of the season does something simple, yet very difficult: It lets us know that it actually believes in Christmas.

So believe it or not, I was expecting a lot from RuPaul's Christmas CD. The high-profile drag queen's other CDs have tended to play it straight, with undisguised gestures of goodwill toward man in the guise of catchy, thumping soul. That mix seemed a good bet to produce some earnest, not to mention house-raising, dance versions of Christmas classics. Instead, Ho Ho Ho mainly offers up a series of bad jokes -- such as the unclever "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Liposuction)" and a winking "Hard Candy Christmas" -- that mock the idea that the holidays mean anything at all. With the exception of a righteous cover of Little Steven's "All Alone on Christmas," RuPaul's effort fails because it doesn't believe in anything. (* 1/2)

This isn't to suggest that good Christmas music can't be funny; anyone who's ever heard Satchmo's hilarious "Zat You, Santa Claus?" knows that's not the case. Songs that make fun of the very idea of Christmas rarely hold up, but songs that have fun with the idea of Christmas are a different matter. For example, lyrics such as "We're rockin' in the manger, rockin' with the Prince of Peace" could easily come off as sacrilegious in the wrong hands, but on A Window Shopper's Christmas, 5 Chinese Brothers make them funny. They manage to pull this off by treating their admittedly silly idea not only as a punch line, but as the miracle it would actually be. Whether making you laugh ("Missing Miss December" is a "Pictures of Lily" for the holidays) or mist up (as with "Making Angels in the Sand"), the 13 tracks by these Baltimore-based roots-rockers comprise as fine a collection of original holiday tunes as I've heard in years. (****)

Often, the most important community message that Christmas offers is the very specific one of home and family, of a connection to the faith and idealism of our childhoods. For these nostalgic moments we rarely want originals; we want instead the carols we're familiar with. So it makes sense that the past several years have witnessed an increased flow of reissued Christmas classics, and this year is no different. The Spirit of Christmas, an encore of Ray Charles's fine 1986 effort, finds the Genius of Soul in big-band jazz mode on "What Child Is This" and kicking it in country-soul style for "The Little Drummer Boy." (***)

On Christmas with Chet Atkins, the Nashville guitar legend picks his way through sweet versions of Christmases both "white" and "blue," though a couple of the instrumentals sound a bit too much like incidental music for a Yuletide episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. (** 1/2).

Another country Christmas reissue, though, gets it exactly right. On the re-released 1961 classic Christmas with the Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira Louvin, siblings who normally sang of lonely broken hearts and tragic unsaved souls, unleash their devastating, true-believer harmonies on carols of salvation. On "Good Christian Men Rejoice" and the exceptional "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," the Louvins' gestures of religious faith are so confident, so certain, that they sound nothing short of blissful. (****)

Of course, the most obvious example of Christmas music as a gesture of giving is the last decade's trend of seasonal collections recorded as benefits for worthy causes. This year, A Very Special Christmas 3 raises money for the Special Olympics with an impressive lineup of pop, rock and R&B stars ranging from Dave Matthews and Blues Traveler to Sting and Patti Smith. Some of it's not so good -- Enya reduces "Silent Night" from powerful and peaceful to simple and snoozy, and Soundgarden's Chris Cornell offers the most pretentious "Ave Maria" ever -- but elsewhere, the disc is frequently wonderful. An original Smashing Pumpkins' cut, the shimmering "Christmastime," captures the wonder of children on the holiest of all mornings through the eyes of an adult. And on her own "Christmas in the City," hip-hop/soul diva Mary J. Blige counts off the reasons she wants to be home for the holidays this year.

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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