Music: Christmas Carols
A devout atheist reveals an unrepentant penchant for Christmas carols, and offers a list of top yule tunes, as well as a few nasty disasters from the past
By Rod Mickleburgh
A confirmed atheist from birth, I nevertheless fell under the spell of Christmas carols early on in my twisted, hippie life. I well remember a time when, in the days leading to Christmas, CBC Radio would broadcast the singing of carols every morning from the Timothy Eaton’s Store in Toronto. And this was no professional choir. The singers were the shoppers, and whoever else showed up to carol at 8.30 a.m., when the half-hour live broadcast began. Complete with coughing, the grave, echo-y announcements of the next carol, the audible rustling of the carol sheets and finally, the glorious sound of all those voices raised on high, it was an indelible part of my “child’s Christmas in Newmarket”.
I can tell you they never did Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman. Maybe a spirited rendition of Jingle Bells might have slipped in, but these were the real carols, the ones we seem to have forgotten how to sing in this age of cultural sensitivity. You know, with all that stuff about the heavenly hosts, angels on high, shepherds watching their flocks, “three Kings of Orient are” (tried to smoke a rubber cigar….) and so many other elements of the wondrous Christmas story back there in Bethlehem, how still we see the lie. Who knew what “lowing” even meant, until Away in the Manger?
These marvellous carols were everywhere at Christmas when I was a kid, and mercifully, they did not start until well into December. They still mean Christmas to me, and I miss them, for all the excellent, non-carol seasonal songs out there (“The fire is slowly dying/And my dear we’re still good-bying/But as long as you love me so/Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”)
Another musical tradition that’s gone by the doors is combing record store shelves for yet another album of Christmas music. I’ve got a lot of them. I once ran into the great Roy Forbes at A & B Sound’s extensive Christmas Music section. He was on the same annual quest for musical treasures, as I was. Alas, A & B Sound is long gone, and so are record stores with large selections of Christmas music beyond Bing Crosby, Michael Bublé and a few lacklustre others. Is there nowhere to buy Christmas Turkey by the Arrogant Worms, or Yogi Yorgesson’s I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas?
Anyway, enough of that. Herewith, restricted to records I have at home, my Top 10 List of Favourite Christmas albums, the last you are likely to read this year. It is Christmas Eve, after all. Better late than never.
10. “What a remarkable boy…”
I just realized I can’t really pick a 10th album and eliminate so many other fine albums I cherish as part of my cool Yule. Here are some of them: The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (Kate and Anna McGarrigle), Santa Baby (best of my many CD collections, led off by Sarah MacLachlan and River), It’s Christmas (Quartette), Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas, The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, if only for The Rebel Jesus), Christmas With the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.), A Merry 1940’s Christmas (Collection by Collector’s Choice Music), A Merrie Christmas to You (Blue Rodeo), Christmas (Two albums, same title: Bruce Cockburn and Colin James), Bright Day * Star (The Baltimore Consort), A Very Special Christmas (Springsteen, U2, The Pointer Sisters, The Pretenders, Madonna et al, for the Special Olympics) and, of course, the unforgettable rarity, Kolędy W Wykonaniu Zespołu (Z Kościola Akademickiego Św. Anny W Warszawie).
9. Soul Christmas
Nothing says Christmas like Clarence Carter’s salute to festive ribaldry, Back Door Santa. Was there ever a naughtier “Ho Ho Ho”? Other highlights: Otis Redding’s White Christmas (no comment…), and The Christmas Song by King Curtis.
8. Handel’s Messiah
No Christmas is complete without this magnificent oratorio. There’s really nothing quite like it. When I’m not at a live performance or tuning in to CBC, I like to listen to a highlight package I have on Phillips Classics, featuring…oh never mind. I’ve never heard of any of them. Me bad. But it’s great. I’m not religious (see above), but surely, as some have suggested, when he penned the Messiah, Handel was touched by the hand of God.
7. Selection of Merry Christmas
As you might be able to tell by the title, this comes from a cheapo record store in Hong Kong that specialized in likely pirated knock-offs. But it’s a great two CD collection of just about all the Christmas songs I like, both carols and non-carols. There’s not a Frosty, Rudolph or mommy kissing Santa Claus in the bunch. I’ve got a lot of traditional Christmas carol records, but I chose this one because of the mixture. Hard to beat Der Bingle closing out the 36-song set with the best Christmas song ever written by a Jew, White Christmas. And, as a special treat, tho oddly, there’s Billie Holiday’s version of God Bless the Child.
6. A Child’s Christmas in Wales
And of course the version read so beautifully by its author, Dylan Thomas. I’m not sure why anyone else bothers to try. I notice something different and delightful every listening. The last time, it was the way Thomas refers so anonymously and yet so memorably to “the uncles” and “the aunts.” No names, but you picture them perfectly. A tip of the hat to the CBC’s Sheryl MacKay and North By Northwest for airing A Child’s Christmas in Wales every year in the week before Christmas.
5. Blue Christmas
Listen to Elvis Presley’s definitive version of Blue Christmas, then open a vein, weep, or down another vat of whiskey. But that’s far from all on this keeper of an album. Renew your cheer with the best rocking version ever of Here Comes Santa Claus and even, gasp, Santa Claus is Back in Town. Carols and White Christmas, too. As good a selection of Christmas songs as there is, beautifully sung by Elvis at the peak of his career. This album has had many re-issues. My vinyl version is a fairly early one, but not the original.
4. Bluegrass & White Snow, A Mountain Christmas
It’s hard to imagine how this Christmas bluegrass album by Patty Loveless could be any better. A sublime mixture of traditional carols beautifully sung by Loveless, bluegrass instrumentals and some sweet, Loveless originals. In fact, this is the album I put on for a jolt of Christmas spirit, whenever I feel dragged down by shopping among the masses (talk about cattle lowing…) and my never-far-away Scrooge-like gloom.
3. Phil Spector’s Christmas Album
The coolest, most frantic, most waaay out there Yuletide collection ever. The mad genius put his legendary Wall of Sound and “stable” of wild girl singers to work on a dozen classic Christmas songs, and the result was pure magic. From the first notes of White Christmas by the amazing Darlene Love, to the final strains of Silent Night, it’s a wild, wild ride. There are stops along the way for Frosty the Snowman by the Ronettes and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by the Crystals. Inevitably, perhaps, someone recently observed, Grinch-like, “Who’d’ve thought such a great Christmas album could be produced by someone who became a crazed murderer?”
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas
Pretty well a perfect album, combining both swinging jazz melodies and the spirit of Christmas. The music is so gentle, yet so evocative. Does anything say Christmas more than the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s version of O Tannenbaum? And it fits the animated, TV classic like a woolen mitt. I recently re-watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time in ages. I’d forgotten how movingly it depicts the Christmas story. Yes, the manger, the shepherds, the star on high, the carols, and those lovely passages from the New Testament, which were such a part of my Christmas, too, all those years ago. I’m not a believer, as I’ve said, but who could deny the wonder and narrative drama of the birth of Jesus. I still love it, and these days, at Christmas, I kind of wish it were more prevalent.
1.En Riktig Svensk Jul.
No record takes me back to magical Christmas mornings in Newmarket more than this wonderful collection of traditional Swedish Christmas tunes. I’m not sure who bought it or when, but it seemed to be always on our ancient turntable, as we unwrapped our presents. At least one of these songs shows up in Ingmar Bergman’s movie masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander. With a rollicking pace pretty well all the way through, the record puts a lie to the widespread theory that “jolly Swedes” is an oxymoron. It meant most to my mother, who came from a Swedish-speaking family in Finland. She grew up with many of these songs. We lost her just after Christmas seven years ago. I still play the album every year, but now there is a touch of sadness. RIP, mom. God Jul och Gott Nytt År!
Finally, I do have a Grinch side, so it’s only fitting to also nominate two of the worst Christmas albums I know. I’m sorry, Bob, but one of them is your recent croaking collection, Christmas In The Heart, tho I do love Must Be Santa. The other, candelabras down, is Twas The Night Before Christmas by the late, flamboyant phony Liberace.
On that ludicrous note, Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.
THE EX-PRESS, December 24, 2015