Friday, December 23, 2016

Wonderful Christmastime (song)

My father was a religious man, and growing up Christmas was a religious holiday. I have no memory of believing in Santa Claus, it wasn’t a story my parents told. But I believed in the nativity, the virgin birth, the love of Christ, no room at the inn.

It was a religious holiday, with presents. I had learned early on not to get too carried away. I would mark up the to section of the Sears catalog, circling all of the superhero action figures and had a particular interest in playsets with which you could make and ideally sell things for money. The snow cone machine, the easy-bake oven.

But I never got those things, my gifts were always very practical and age-appropriate. The gifts would accumulate beneath the tree over the course of days (because Santa wasn’t coming suddenly drop them in one night) and I would speculate upon their contents based on size and weight. The ABBA album I requested turned out to be the soundtrack to the recent TV version of The Hobbit. A RPG solo adventure was actually a wildlife calendar. My hopes were high, my expectations grounded.

On Christmas Eve we would attend the late service, which was one of my favorite traditions. It always began with The March of the Wise Men, the lights dim, the choir entered in pairs bearing candles, processing up the center aisle to the quire, as their numbers increased the slow, steady, low hymn would build and build, rising to a tremendous pitch. It’s the kind of deep organ music which settles in your abdomen, and travels up your spine to make the hair stand on your neck. I believed in Jesus, this music was my proof.

This is actually completely awesome.
There were imaginings of Santa Claus, but it was hard to square them with reality. Accidentally missing any of the stop-motion, Rankin Bass animations, which firmly established the late twentieth-century Santa mythology, was cause for tears and deep regret. (The first few are canonical - like it or not, Mickey Rooney is the only voice for Santa - by the time they were creating nonsense like “Happy the New Year Baby” the bloom was off the rose.)

My first grade teacher had a glowing crystal ball on a pedestal through which we were told Santa could see us and hear our questions, like a benevolent palantir. The night of our school Christmas concert I peeked into my classroom and saw that it was not glowing. I walked over to it and saw the cord and switch which I had not noticed before, and what had been magic was rendered merely mechanical. I wanted to believe, but I knew better, even at six.

Christmas songs, as a child, seemed eternal. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1963) and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (c. 16th century or earlier) were most certainly conceived of by the same man on the very same day, they are each found in the Bible, are they not? But as I grew into preadolescence and became aware of world events, so also did I begin to understand time and context.

I’d never heard John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) until that night he was shot and killed. I was twelve and it was December. Released in 1971 it is both Christmas single and a protest against the war in Vietnam. No one played it in the late 1970s, the anti-war message was dated, but suddenly it was given new life as programmers filled the air with the works of the slain artist, and after all, it was Christmas time. Now, of course, it is regarded as a standard.

Wings does not appear.
The following year I became aware of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, which had actually been released two years earlier. It hadn’t even charted in America that season, but by 1981 it was making its way into holiday pop rotation here. It is very of its time, almost entirely synthesized, it was recorded entirely by McCartney, by himself, and sounds like it.

This piece, like so many others, could easily be dismissed as just another British holiday pop song (they make so many more than we do, seriously) except that coming from a former Beatle the recording is held up for particular derision and is even regarded as the worst Christmas song ever made, which, considering company, you have to admit is pretty harsh.

My own lingering affection for this song is a matter of timing, really. Wonderful Christmastime was popular in that season when I had my first girlfriend. Christmastime is many things to many people, deeply sacred, a midwinter celebration of light and joy, it can also be a time of great romance, and like it or not this is my first romantic holiday song.
The moon is right
The spirits up
We're here tonight
And that's enough 
It is evocative of walks in the snow and through the woods, of holding someone, having someone. Taking comfort in knowing you belong, that you are special and that you have someone special. Feeling love. Being happy. And it’s got sleigh bells in it and I love those.

If there must be secular holiday songs, Sir Paul's unbreakable chestnut ticks all the boxes. Its message is basic; the people I love are happy together, here at this moment. This season, that is all the Christmas I need.

You know you want to.

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