I'm Not Dreaming of a White Christmas
Ho ho freakin' ho, it's Christmas time again, and time for Racket to get his Scrooge on. But instead of trashing a bunch of half-baked yuletide CDs, this time around we're going deeper on the subject of Christmas music. Not that we're religious, but aside from a few hymns, we think most of the entire Christmas music genre is evil.
Why? Well, first off, Racket's a native Texan. All this "Let It Snow," "Winter Wonderland" and chestnuts roasting crap really gets him down. Dreaming of a white Christmas? Keep dreaming. The last white Christmas in Houston was, well, never in recorded history. It may have snowed here on December 25 sometime in the past, but only the Native Americans were here to see it. It has snowed before and after Christmas here, but never on the big day. The mercury dips below freezing once every five years, but then it also surges past 70 every five years, too.
The whole Christmas-snow correlation is idiotic anyway. Just as it's preposterous for us to believe that Jesus looked anything like the way he's presented in, say, Dutch paintings, so is it ridiculous to think that his birthday has to be celebrated with the wintry tunes of the Germans, English and Yankees who wrote the songs. It's rampant cultural imperialism! Vile Eurocentric bigotry! Virulent Northernism!
About ten years ago, Racket and not-yet-Mrs. Racket had the privilege of spending an entire December about 70 miles north of Bethlehem on a kibbutz in the Galilee, and the weather there is basically identical to that of Houston. After all, it's on almost exactly the same latitude. But to hear most Christmas music, you'd think Jesus was born in Duluth, Buffalo or Nome. For the last time, Jesus was born in a subtropical desert, not a blizzard!
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Meanwhile, other secular Christmas ditties paint Norman Rockwell pictures of Christmas that people kill and die trying to recapture. You can bet the bargain-hunting mob that trampled that woman in Florida was humming "Silver Bells." How many yuletide domestic disputes unfold to the tune of "A Holly Jolly Christmas"? How many parking spot squabbles are set to a "White Christmas"? And what must the paranoiacs among us think when they hear "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"? (True story: A few years ago, Racket was at a party for a fresh-out-of-rehab Townes Van Zandt. In his honor, we all abstained from alcohol. All of us, that is, except the guest of honor, who had concealed a bottle of schnapps on the premises. At any rate, Van Zandt was quite fixated on the lyrics of "Santa Claus Is Coming." "It says 'be good for goodness' sake!' " he would exclaim to all passersby. "That's it! Be good for the sake of goodness!")
There are a few realistic exceptions to these golden rules of white folks' Christmas music -- Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas from the Family" and the Pogues' "Fairy Tale of New York."
Keen's tune is often unfairly described as being about trailer trash, but Racket didn't grow up in a double-wide and that song always seemed like a fairly true picture of his family's Blue Nun-sodden yuletide shindigs, as well as those of many of his friends. It was almost never cold -- the only snow was the fake stuff in a can. People got drunk. Fuses blew. Someone was always heading out to the U-Tote-M for tampons and smokes, and there was always some once-, twice- and thrice-removed kinfolk in the house. (Often, only my grandmother could tell me exactly how I was related to those people from Brownsville, Tyler or wherever with the cups of homemade eggnog in their hands.) All that's missing in Keen's song is a dogfight. Almost always, our mutts would get into a scrap under the table as they battled for the morsels of old Aunt Julia from Beaumont's deviled eggs that we would furtively drop on the floor.
As for the Pogues' "Fairy Tale," Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl delivered what just might be the greatest Christmas tune of the last 50 years -- it works as a beautiful piece of music, a punch-to-the-gut love song and even capital-L literature. While bells ring out for Christmas night and the boys of the NYPD choir sing "Galway Bay," the two protagonists slide over the course of three or four verses from eager, breathless Irish immigrants to New York to a couple of stinky old codgers with various chemical dependencies who stay together because there's nowhere else to take their broken dreams.
But aside from those two, virtually every other Christmas tune does nothing more than infantilize and tantalize. On the one hand, they make you wish that someone else would take your crayon-scrawled list to Santa and make all of your wishes become real. On the other, the day itself is never quite as magic as the songs crack it up to be. Never is and never was. Who among us ever truly got to see all the people they hoped to see or got everything they asked for? And even if you did, wasn't it all anticlimactic? Especially when your toys started breaking, when you discovered that your neighbors got better stuff, when the toy you lusted for all year turned out to be nothing more than a piece of painted plastic junk nowhere near as cool as it looked on TV. Didn't the presents always looked better wrapped than they did after you opened them? Isn't the day after Christmas the worst day of the year, especially if you're back at work?
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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