I hate Christmas music. Oh, okay, not all of it. There’s Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas—that album’s worthy of the grandest love you can bestow on a piece of music—and then there’s Run DMC’s hilarious “Christmas in Hollis.” Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas, Baby,” is divine, mostly because it sounds less like traditional Christmas cheer and more like the sexiest come-on ever. (Redding’s voice could sell condoms to a nun.) Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is delightful. Raffi’s Christmas Album is surprisingly soulful, gentle, and childlike.
But that’s about it, as far as I’m concerned. At least, for the pop stuff. Almost all of it sounds as if it’s been filtered through a dozen charm machines, and scrubbed and disinfected before display. The songs are so polished and spit-shined that you can forget that Jesus, if we’re to believe the hype, was born amidst goat shit and hay and dirt, in the freezing cold, to two parents who were justifiably frightened for their lives. If you’re Christian, the great, and ironic, joy of his birth is that the savior of the world was born to people who were more or less “untouchables,” in the lowliest circumstances imaginable. And I don’t get a sense of that from “White Christmas.” As E.B. White pointed out, even “Silent Night,” as moving as it can be, can sound artificial:
“Silent Night,” canned and distributed in thundering repetition in the department stores, has become one of the greatest of all noisemakers, almost like the rattles and whistles of Election Night. We rode down on an escalator the other morning through the silent-nighting of the loudspeakers, and the man just in front of us was singing, “I’m gonna wash this store right outa my hair, I’m gonna wash this store . . . ”
And he wrote that in 1949.
It’s the noise, I suppose, that gets to me, the constant aural overload that begins in mid-November and marches on through Christmas Day. The beauty of “Silent Night” is that it evokes silence and calm. It doesn’t matter—or, rather, it matters all the more—that the lyrics were apparently written during a period of great emotional turbulence for the composer. The song conveys peace, just as Christ’s birth is supposed to.
Now, it’s clatter, clatter everywhere, and not a drop to hear, or that’s worth hearing. More than this, it’s the feeling of forced merriment that annoys me about Christmas songs. This false cheer floats freely in the air and, if you’re American at least, there’s not much you can do about it unless you want to head to the woods with a rifle, buckskin coat, and a dog-eared copy of How to Shit in the Woods. And I’ve no interest in becoming the Unabomber.
It’s false because the music’s omnipresence forces cheer on you, whether or not you’re actually feeling it. Most of us feel anxiety during the season: Can I afford all these presents? Will they be shipped in time? How will I pay for this flight, when I just flew out there for Thanksgiving last month? Will Uncle Morrie drink too much of the “special” punch? Just how people will ask me when I’m getting married? (I’m betting on seventeen.) Will cousin Gertie bring up her divorce again? Will Dad make jokes about the Mexicans, and will I tell him to stop, or just pretend to laugh like everyone else? Can I endure five days in the same household as my parents without killing someone?
You know, the usual. It’s not that I don’t love Christmas, or my family. I love driving around the rich Highland Park neighborhood gazing at the extravagant lights. I think the supposed “War on Christmas”—all of it, from the allegedly beleaguered Christians in the sticks to the pundits launching their absurd “counter-war” on the holiday, using flimsy examples as arguments that the Jews and the corporations are usurping our “sacred, sacred day”—is silly. I love embracing people that I often only see once or twice a year.
But the music in particular doesn’t ever seem to reflect the complexity, the panic, the mild heartache, and the pure joy that we actually feel during the season. The “joy” of these songs doesn’t rise up from something deeper and more resonant than the songs themselves. The music is everywhere, but little of it sticks, like snow on days when the ground is still too warm.
Except for one song.
Now, it’s worth noting that, as a rule, I don’t like John Lennon’s post-Beatles stuff very much. (Even “Imagine” is now as dismayingly ubiquitous and insipid as “Silent Night”.) But, in 1971, he released “Happy Christmas (War Is Over),” and for that I’ll always be grateful.
It begins, well, before it begins, with Lennon and his son Julian whispering “Happy Christmas” to each other. They could be sitting on the porch looking out at the moon, or sitting next to each at midnight Mass. And then it starts, with just Lennon’s plaintive voice and a strummed acoustic guitar:
So this is Christmas/ And what have you done/ Another year over/ And a new one just begun
Everything about this beginning is so intimate, so offhand. Lennon’s voice is reedy, his lyrics and delivery conversational. Just when you think it’s going to be just another pretty folk song, the bass and a jingly, shuffling drum beat come in.
And so this is Christmas/ I hope you have fun/ The near and the dear one/ The old and the young
And, like most conversations, this one’s about the everyday, about what’s going on right now. “So this is Christmas” sounds like a response to someone, perhaps to you the listener, and not just an invocation to you from nowhere.
At this point, it’s still at the level of a brilliant soft-rock staple, and then suddenly the song begins to soar. Strings, a children’s choir, a bell, and the pounding of tom-toms all kickstart the song into high gear. “Happy Christmas” might be a Christmas greeting, but it’s one that rocks. But there’s a melancholy here that reminds us that the season reminds us of both the joy of loving those who are with us and the sorrow of those we’ve left behind.
A very merry Christmas/ And a happy New Year/ Let’s hope it’s a good one/ Without any fear
Fear’s not a concept you hear about in most Christmas songs, even though it’s almost always on our minds. Lennon wrote the song during the Vietnam War, but his lyrics are universal. There’s always a war being waged in some part of the world, after all; even on Christmas Day, there are men and women, boys and girls having their limbs blown off, crying for those they’ve lost.
And so this is Christmas/ For weak and for strong/ For rich and the poor ones/ The world is so wrong/ And so happy Christmas/ For black and for white/ For yellow and red ones/ Let’s stop all the fight
By this point, the song has the power of an ancient chant. Part of this effect simply comes from the handmade, rough feeling of the song. This may be apocryphal, but I’ve always heard that Lennon never liked his singing voice. His voice is gorgeous, but he sounds like a man whose voice we could emulate. It’s down to earth. It belongs to us. The same goes for the children singing in the background. Their voices are strong and beautiful, but they aren’t immaculately trained—it’s not the Vienna Boys Choir. They sound like a mass of kids on the playground, singing because it’s fun and spontaneous.
For years, I thought they were singing “hallelujah” over and over. It wasn’t until two years that it dawned on me that they’re singing “War is over/ If you want it.” The war wasn’t over, of course, but this is Lennon bestowing the greatest hope—one of peace, one of love—that he can give to us. The incantation, and Lennon’s voice weaving through it, is one of the greatest prayers I’ve heard, and one I hope Christ would approve of.
Like the Beatles’ back catalog, “Happy Christmas” feels ramshackle, from the slightly off-tune kids to the mighty, fuzzy drums to the clang and clutter of the whole arrangement. It sounds like something my friends and I could do on an inspired day. But that melody stays with me, the lyrics are simple but profound, and the musicianship is tight. The Beatles looked like four ordinary boys, and I guess they fooled us into thinking that they were, too. It’s a façade, of course. Their songs are quite lovely, tuneful, catchy, and impossible to replicate.
“Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” is the closest Lennon came to recapturing the magic of the Beatles. It’s one of the greatest gifts he ever gave to the world. So, in his honor, a small gift to you all: here’s the song. Merry—or, rather, happy—Christmas to everyone.