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I'm Not Dreaming of a White Christmas

No snow and no Bing for Racket

Like Keen, MacGowan and MacColl, black people have always had a more realistic view of the season. Take Texas City native and Prairie View A&M graduate Charles Brown, for example, who was second only to Nat "King" Cole among African-American Christmas crooners. On the face of it, the blues balladeer's "Merry Christmas Baby" (which was written by his old bandmate Johnny Moore) has lyrics that would seem to jibe with white ideals: the bounty of presents, the sense of matchless satisfaction, even Santa sliding down the chimney.

But did people such as Hanson and Christina Aguilera who later recorded the song catch on to the rippling undercurrent of alcoholism in the song? To wit: Why would a man who says "I haven't had a drink this morning" (as if that were the glaring exception to the rule) "feel all lit up like a Christmas tree" because his baby gave him a diamond ring?

On "Please Come Home for Christmas," Brown is as truly pathetic (in the "pitiable" sense) as anything the Smiths ever came up with. "Bells will be ringing / The glad, glad news / Oh, what a Christmas / To have the blues / My baby's gone / I have no friends / To wish me greetings / Once again." Love that "once again" -- a truly Morrisseyan distillation of years of misery into two wretched little words. Brown seems to know that his dawg of a lover ain't gonna be home -- he'll settle for "If not for Christmas / Then by New Year's Night," and then gently chides/begs that "It's Christmas time, my dear / The time of year to be with the one you love / Then won't you tell me / You'll never more roam / Christmas and New Year's / Will find you home." And with its vocal delivery as mournful as a lonesome dove's call, you get the feeling that's about as likely a prospect as Tom DeLay endorsing Al Sharpton for president. You know Brown's gonna be singing the same tune this time next year.

There's often a racy cast to the old-school black Christmas songs, and the prevalence of mistletoe over gift-giving suggests why sex has come to be known as the "poor man's fortune." (And poverty trumps race, as famously once-destitute white guy Frank McCourt of Angela's Ashes fame once noted: "We were so poor that if we woke up on Christmas Day without an erection, we had nothing to play with.") Brook Benton's "You're All I Want for Christmas" is one of the most starkly antimaterialist Christmas songs ever. All the deep-voiced lover man wants is his baby: "I want to share your kisses for Christmas / the rest is only tinsel and show / You're all I want, my darling / At candle glow and mistletoe." On Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means to Me," there's no mention of gifts as he sings, "I'll get you 'neath the mistletoe / I'll kiss you once, and then some more." All Donny Hathaway wants to do "This Christmas" is hang up the 'toe and get to know his loved one better -- presents are a mere afterthought.

But that was the hippy-dippy '60s and '70s. Love ain't enough to put under the tree in the oh-three, at least for Dirty South rapper David Banner on the new collection Crunk and Disorderly."We gonna rob that ho / get that cash / bust a muthafucka if he don't move fast" goes the refrain of his by turns violent and weirdly affecting "It's Christmas Time (Jingle Bells)," in which the roles of Santa and the Grinch are combined. The song's chorus steals the melody from "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," though the gent who rests merry around Banner and company will soon meet dismay: "It's wintertime and we still cannot find a job / we fill out applications but you treat us like we're slobs / so we rob and we steal / we're just tryin' to get a lil' / 'cause it's Christmas time and we're broke again / broke again…" As the song ends, Banner hands over a sack of loot to his kid, who asks, "Hey, daddy, what's all that blood doin' on your shirt?"

It's Christmas time in the city indeed.

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