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santasometimessays – I checked it twice

December 13, 2012

The very excellent Crumbs and Pegs recently lifted the lid on one of the myths of Christmas – with photographic evidence of the sheer terror that a certain Big Red character – who at any other time of the year would be presented as an ogre – can bring to young minds. Have a look at the awful truth about Christmas cheer.

But what about the other side of that coin? For those who occasionally have to don an ill-fitting and possibly unwashed red robe and converse jovially without taking gulps of cotton wool (not to mention all those beastly children), this season must bring horrors all its own. Well, thankfully, they can be comforted: someone feels that pain. Cue the Fountains of Wayne – The Man in the Santa Suit. And we will return to the Fountains of Wayne, because (unusually) they made two quirky Christmas tracks that I enjoy.

I say “unusually” because few musicians have produced a worthwhile, enduring and extended body of original Christmas music…

…it is the year 1734, and someone mentions to J.S. Bach what a splendid plan it would be if he wrote something for Christmas. “Whoopee” thinks J.S. (in German) and settles down to serve up another helping of genius to the world and posterity. Off he goes to his clavia and comes up with the Christmas Oratorio. Largely (but not totally) reusing music from earlier pieces, he gives us over 2 hours of aria, recitative, chorus and chorale – varied, melodic, harmonious and gorgeous. Try this bit.

It wasn’t a massive success. In fact, after the first couple of years, it doesn’t seem to have been performed for over a century and is certainly not the oratorio from that period that we most readily associate with Christmas. Handel’s Messiah, though not actually a Christmas work, is the choral work with the most enduring and widest appeal. As it happens, Messiah was premiered at a charity concert in Dublin, and it strikes me how even then there was a charity factor which could promote popularity. Was Handel the Bob Geldof of his day? Check out the hair (and givest thou of thy money, churl).


Everybody knows and loves at least one bit of the Messiah: if you listen to the whole thing, you might be surprised at how much you recognise. Mrs simonsometimessays has what I am compelled to regard as an irrational dislike of But who may abide (she can’t bear the bit about the “refiner’s fire”), so out of respect to her I shall link not to that, but to Every valley shall be exaltedWhat a corker. Probably though, if there had been piped music in 18th Century retail outlets, it would have been the Hallelujah Chorus.

280 years later, shopping in the UK at this time of year is accompanied by a selection of three to four minute songs on an endless loop, statistically dominated by Cliff Richard. He’s another artist to have made rather a habit of recording new Christmas songs, though personally I don’t like any of them. In fact, with the very honourable exception of the Killers, as I have mentioned more than once (but no more, I promise), not many modern artists have produced more than one decent Christmas song.

Composing Christmas music is as old as Christmas itself, and yuletide pops are merely an extension of that. Throughout, the quality has been mixed, occasionally being so dire that the undoubted commercialism at the back of it simply cannot be disguised. Perhaps it is more conspicuous in this age, but by way of example take Cyndi Lauper’s Early Christmas Morning, which is completely at odds with the punky flavour of her other songs. And while we are in Humbug mood we may as well mention any song in which the word “Christmas” appears randomly, making it superficially seasonal to the inattentive listener or playlist editor, even where the word is used by way of contrast. Thus, Elton John’s Cold as Christmas – in which the season is mentioned in a context that is anything but merry. The link will take you – again ironically – to a Christmas TV special.

It’s common for artists to produce an album of seasonal favourites. No, let’s be blunt: it isn’t common, it’s tiresomely, repetitively, numbingly inevitable that every year there will be at least one new disc with a new take on anything from Away in a Manger to I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, almost always by way of White Christmas. Even Elvis took on the latter – and butchered it. Usually in such circumstances I would not link , but you have to hear this. It’s a colour thing, Elvis: Blue Christmas – yes; White Christmas – No, No, No.

This is not intended to be a tour of my Christmas playlist, nor a map of a festive music minefield. I will just mention that I will always put aside some time for Phil Spector’s Christmas Album – The Crystals version of Rudolf  is a masterpiece. There is a strange couple of minutes on the album of Spector himself talking oleaginously about peace, love and music, backed by Silent Night from the Wall of Sound – bizarre at best and in the light of events, rather grotesque.

I also listen to  Menotti’s short opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. It’s a pretty story of a crippled boy whose home lies on the route taken by three kings following a star; I think we know where they’re going, don’t we? Written ostensibly for children, it has some lovely ensemble moments in it, including Have you seen a child? – a beautiful dialogue between the kings and Amahl’s mother. It’s bound up in my mind with the image of my sister Anne-Marie singing the role of Amahl’s mother. Being a soppy yuletide so-and-so, I get choked up whenever I hear it.

The three kings are of course carrying gifts – handy at Christmas – but the final word on seasonal presents goes once again to the Fountains of Wayne, and a fabulous song which I first heard on a now-defunct radio station. When the same presenter a year later seemed not to have heard of it, I felt betrayed.

Anyway – the pleadings of a boy as he writes his Christmas list: I Want an Alien for Christmas.

Happy Christmas, from sss


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