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"Christmas – an aspirin for the soul or cold-turkey celebration of the birth and life of Christ? It has to be a measured bit of both, doesn’t it?" – Ian Anderson, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album
What a year it’s been. We’ve had kids getting micro-chipped in the public schools. Congress, the courts and the White House working in cahoots to erode our privacy rights. The Transportation Security Administration fumbling its way through national security. Hurricane Sandy ravaging the Eastern shore. The police state merging with the surveillance state to keep us tagged, tracked and under control. The military industrial complex lobbying to keep the nation at war and defense contractors in the money. Individuals getting fined and arrested for violating any number of vague and overreaching laws. Homes getting raided and innocent Americans killed by rampaging SWAT teams armed to the hilt.
After endless months of being mired in gloom and doom, we now find ourselves just a few weeks away from Christmas, struggling to latch onto that spirit of joy, excitement, innocence, magic and hope we had as children. Even if one is successful in momentarily blocking out the political gloom and doom, it still takes a monumental effort to get past the Grinches and Scrooges who can you make you feel like yours is anything but a wonderful life. And then there’s Christmas itself, which has become embattled in recent years, co-opted by rampant commercialism, straight-jacketed by political correctness, and denuded of so much of its loveliness, holiness and mystery.
Despite all of this humbuggery, however, there are still a few steps you can take to reclaim the magic of Christmas and enjoy the season. For a start, do something nice for someone else – whether it’s a family member, a neighbor or a stranger on the street. Turn off the news and turn on a Christmas movie, one of the oldies but goodies – something full of good will, sweetness and heart. And then, to top it all off, add some Christmas tunes to the mix, whatever fits the bill for you – be it traditional carols, rollicking oldies, or some rocking new tunes. What I love about Christmas music is how the sacred and irreverent meld into an atmosphere of joy and wonder.
Listen to them over dinner, in the car, on your iPod. Hum them under your breath as you do your shopping. Belt them out in the shower or while gathered together in a group setting. Before you know it, you’ll start feeling like it’s Christmastime again.
Out of the hundreds of Christmas albums I’ve listened to over the years, the following are ten of my favorites, covering a broad range of musical styles, moods and tastes, but each in its own way perfectly capturing the essence of Christmas.
It’s Christmas (EMI, 1989): 18 great songs, ranging from John Lennon’s "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" to Bing Crosby’s "White Christmas." The real treats on this album are Greg Lake’s "I Believe in Father Christmas," Kate Bush’s "December Will Be Magic Again" and Aled Jones’ "Walking in the Air."
Christmas Guitar (Rounder, 1986): 28 beautifully done traditional Christmas songs by master guitarist John Fahey. Hearing Fahey’s guitar strings plucking out "Joy to the World," "Good King Wenceslas," "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas," among others, is a sublime experience.
Christmas Is A Special Day (The Right Stuff, 1993): 12 fine songs by Fats Domino, the great Fifties rocker, ranging from "Amazing Grace" to "Jingle Bells." The title song, written by Domino himself, is a real treat. No one has ever played the piano keys like Fats.
Christmas Island (August/Private Music, 1989): "Frosty the Snowman" will never sound the same after you hear Leon Redbone and Dr. John do their duet. Neither will "Christmas Island" or "Toyland" on this collection of 11 traditional and rather offbeat songs.
A Holiday Celebration (Gold Castle, 1988): The classic folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, backed by the New York Choral Society, sing traditional and nontraditional holiday fare on 12 beautifully orchestrated songs. Included are "I Wonder as I Wander," "Children Go Where I Send Thee," and "The Cherry Tree Carol." Also thrown in is Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind."
The Christmas Album (Columbia, 1992): Neil Diamond sings 14 songs, ranging from "Silent Night" to "Jingle Bell Rock" to "The Christmas Song" to "Come, O Come Emmanuel." Diamond also gives us a great rendition of Lennon’s "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." A delightful album.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1988): 12 traditional Christmas songs by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The pianist extraordinaire and his trio perform "O Tannenbaum," "The Christmas Song" and "Greensleeves." Also included is the Charlie Brown Christmas theme.
The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (Fuel Records, 2003): If you like deep-rooted traditional holiday songs, you’ll love this album. The 16 songs range from "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" to Ian Anderson originals such as "Another Christmas Song" and "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow." With Anderson on flute and vocals, this album has an old world flavor that will have you wanting mince pie and plum pudding.
A Twisted Christmas (Razor Tie, 2006): Twisted Sister, the heavy metal group, knocks the socks off a bevy of traditional and pop Christmas songs. Dee Snider’s amazing vocals brings to life "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "Deck the Halls," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," among others – including "Heavy Metal Christmas (The Twelve Days of Christmas)." Great fun and a great band.
Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006): In December 2001, independent singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens set out to create a Christmas gift through songs for his friends and family. It eventually grew to a 5-CD box set, which includes Stevens’ original take on such standards as "Amazing Grace" and "We Three Kings" and some inventive yuletide creations of his own. A lot of fun.
One more thing. We must never forget that the Christmas holiday is named after the Prince of Peace. So in the midst of the giving and the getting and the making merry, let’s not forget to do our part to make this world a better place for everyone. As John Lennon sings in "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)":
And so this is Christmas, For weak and for strong, For rich and the poor ones. The road is so long. And so happy Christmas For black and for white, For yellow and red ones. Let’s stop all the fight.
Merry Christmas, and in the words of Tiny Tim, "God bless us everyone."