More than a sacred holiday - or even a secular display of holly, jolly cheer - Christmas is a blank slate for expressing hopes, dreams and stinging disappointments.
Nothing makes that point more clearly than holiday music. For every "White Christmas" and "Deck the Halls," there's a "Christmas Eve Can Kill You" or a "Dear Santa (Bring Me a Man This Christmas)" to set the record straight.
The heavy rotation of standard Christmas ditties on AM/FM radio hardly reflects the bounty of offbeat material available to those seeking an aural tonic for holiday excess. In genres ranging from Klezmer to hardcore, the annual festival has inspired a profusion of twisted covers, risque parodies, and musical barbs aimed at politics and strife, popular culture and the usual chasm between real life and delusion.
The wealth of Christmas music you'll never hear while shopping at K-mart also proves that artists far from the mainstream have mined the holiday's maudlin, ironic and zany qualities with bracingly skewed results. By the time the annual frenzy of peace, goodwill and presents reaches its climax, "Christmas at K-mart" by Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band or "Santa Baby" by Eartha Kitt just may win a musical smackdown with Burl Ives or Bing Crosby.
It's "the soundtrack to your dysfunctional family holiday," says Dan Turner, who programs an annual mix of "holiday music songs, oddball parodies and rock covers of holiday classics," for XM satellite radio's Special X-Mas broadcast channel.
"So many of us look back and have memories of Dad who had too much cheap whiskey, and Mom who had one too many Valiums, the turkey got burned and one aunt's kisses lasted just a moment too long," Turner says.
Comedy "is a major building block of the Special X-Mas channel, but so is lounge music, kitsch, hillbilly, doo-wop, odd, rare, interesting or just plain bad [music]," says Turner, also senior vice president of programming operations at XM.
License to stem the yuletide allows listeners to "hear the Christmas Jug Band doing 'Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas Money,' followed by Ernie Stubbs' 'Merry Texas Christmas to Y'All' next to Weird Al doing 'The Night Santa Went Crazy,' then [cult jazz musician] Esquivel's 'White Christmas' and then close it out with the Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York,' " Turner says. "The idea is to sonically surprise and challenge folks at every corner ... and some surprises aren't always nice."
Novelty Christmas songs like the Singing Dogs' version of "Jingle Bells," or profane interpretations of old chestnuts serve the trickster's role in alleviating the season's intense social pressures. "It's a time when everybody's warning you to be good, and you desperately want to be bad," says Jasen Emmons, curatorial director at the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
"The fun thing about these songs is that you start with sleigh bells and you're anticipating a cheerful holiday song and suddenly it jumps the tracks, and you're run over by a reindeer," says Emmons, referring to the 1979 novelty "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo & Patsy.
"In some ways, the novelty songs are a way of throwing snowballs at the whole idea of Christmas," Emmons says. "It's the Grinch with a good sense of humor."
As incendiary as they may be, subversive Christmas carols fulfill a social purpose, just as their glossier counterparts do. While no performer's repertoire seems complete without a Christmas album, holiday music often circumnavigates crass commercialism, says Eric Weisbard, a Los Angeles-based music authority whose next book is about Guns N' Roses. "The funny thing about Christmas songs is that they are closer to folk music, or standards," Weisbard says. "We sing them together, so they are a bit outside the typical consumer culture idea of a hot new product every season. The last one I heard that seemed revolutionary was [from] Run-DMC!"
In his recent book, White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, Jody Rosen notes that the 1942 holiday ballad by Irving Berlin was the first in a "new canon of holiday pop tunes, that, seemingly instantly, had acquired cultural stature on par with Handel's Messiah, traditional Christmas hymns, and 19th century secular carols like 'Jingle Bells' and 'Deck the Halls.' "
Well before Bing Crosby crooned "White Christmas," though, jazz, country, rhythm and blues and other American roots artists recorded their own Christmas music, Turner says. "Actually, there always has been a comedic and bawdy kind of approach," he adds.
Blues legend Bessie Smith and others recorded numerous Christmas laments in the 1920s, and the next decade saw a flurry of seasonal blues songs that also teetered on novelty, according to the Bad Dog Blues Web site (baddogblues.com). Among them were Butterbeans & Susie's "Papa Ain't No Santa Claus" in 1930 and Bumble Bee Slim's "Santa Claus Bring Me a New Woman" in 1936. Within "the fringe formats, this has always been going on," Turner says of off-kilter holiday melodies. But as radio has consolidated, 60 years' worth of Christmas music has been winnowed down to an AM/FM playlist of the same 300 songs, he says.
In White Christmas, Rosen notes that many Christmas standards were written by Jews, who in the process secularized the holiday for non-Christians. But the relatively minor festival of Hanukkah has spawned its own oeuvre of silly songs, enough to warrant Radio Hanukkah on XM, where the traditional song "I Have a Little Dreidel" is apt to spin into "Swingin' Dreidel" and Orthodox rapper Doc Mo She lets loose with "Hanukkah Homeboy."
Compilations of quirky Christmas music such as Rhino Records' Dr. Demento Presents: Greatest Christmas Novelty CD are widely available. A John Waters Christmas, featuring the selections of Baltimore's own arbiter of bad taste, including the explicit "Here Comes Fatty Claus" by Rudolph & Gang, was released by New Line Records in 2004.
Then there are the self-described geeks such as Lou Brutus, who circulate homemade samplers of holiday novelties among friends and music-industry contacts. Brutus, an XM program director and creator of Special X-Mas, culls songs from his massive music collection for an annual Christmas CD. Among his favorites are a version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" by the Whirling Dervishes and "The Ann Arbor Chain Saw Massacre Christmas Song" by an Ohio State University-based punk band that called itself the Dead Schembechlers, until its namesake, the famed college football coach Bo Schembechler, died last month.
Brutus is also fond of the Beatles' Christmas messages, which "make absolutely no sense," and holiday song parodies by Bob Rivers, who turned "Winter Wonderland" into "Walking 'Round in Women's Underwear." Spinal Tap's "Christmas With the Devil" is "my absolute favorite," he says. And, "If you want great, weirdo stuff," look for Esquivel's "Merry Christmas From the Space Age Bachelor Pad."
No matter how crude or screwy, most Christmas music contributes to the season's merry din, Brutus says. "Some artists really do want to capture the spirit of the season, and some people want to make a quick buck and put out a holiday CD. As for why people like [weird Christmas music] so much, I can only answer for myself: I still believe in Santa Claus and have never grown out of the holiday spirit."
Creating a cranky mix
O come, all ye nonconformists, and listen to the flip side of Christmas and the holiday season.
Share the spirit by burning your own CD mix and giving it to friends who may also be suffering from a glut of eggnog, chipmunks and chestnuts.
Record collectors know that there is no single way to track down a particular plum. They do their sleuthing on the Web, at used-record stores, yard sales and other spots for obscure treasures.
Just a little investigation into Christmas' underbelly yields a wealth of material. With its index of idiosyncratic rock 'n' roll and novelty Christmas tunes dating to the 1940s, Mistletunes.com is a great place to get started. The blog called ernienot firstname.lastname@example.org offers daily primers on Christmas albums past, both cheesy and charming.
Baddogblues.com devotes a page to the history of Christmas blues music. It's safe to assume there are plenty of similar Internet sites dedicated to other holiday musical genres.
Rhino Records has released numerous Christmas anthologies, including Dr. Demento Presents: Greatest Christmas Novelty CD and Hipsters' Holiday and Soulful Sounds of Christmas.
A John Waters Christmas released by New Line Records stretches the holiday spirit far beyond polite company.
In your effort to customize your soundtrack to holiday lunacy, tune into XM 107, scan iTunes for downloadable novelties and search Amazon.com for album track lists. Various music sites offer song samples or free downloads as well. This listener got hooked on the scathing "Blue Christmas (To Whom It May Concern)" by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, after listening to a sample on Amazon.com from the duo's Complete Columbia Studio Recordings.
But even that angry song by two jazz masters can't compete with the bleak perspective heard in "Christmas Eve Can Kill You," a 1972 song about a loner by the Everly Brothers.
On that note, have yourself a merry little Christmas.