It all started with “Carol of the Bells.”
I’ve loved that song ever since I heard it sung by our high school chorus—-not the everybody-gets-in-as-long-as-you’re-breathing one I belonged to, but the varsity, first-string group. I was in awe of the way the voices glided over and around each other. Over the years I’ve enjoyed a number of versions of the piece, especially the John Williams offering from Home Alone, although that sounded more like a call to arms than a carol. (Come to think of it, so does the spectacular Trans-Siberian Orchestra version.)
And then there’s the recording that assaulted my ears this year.
Chances are I’ve heard this version by The Ray Conniff Singers before, but it got drowned out by too much holly jolly rockin’ around the Christmas tree. When I finally identified the group and found them on YouTube the video quality led me to conclude the performance was recorded in the 1970’s.
Anyway, when my local all-Christmas-all-the-time radio station blasted this rendition as I worked in the kitchen it stopped me in my tracks. Williams and TSO may have emphasized the driving, even militaristic, rhythm, but the vocals by Conniff and company amped it up to “Ride of the Valkyries” levels. When the women in the group shriek “Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring” at the end I’m thinking not of the joy of Jesus’s arrival but of flying monkeys, green witches and Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb. Duck and cover! Save yourselves! (Check it out for yourself here.)
If you scroll down and read the comments below the video you’ll see that most don’t agree with me. As one person put it, “...Who can give this a thumbs down? Unfathomable!”
Which brings us, at long last, to the theme of this column: Christmas music, beloved and...not. I polled my Facebook friends, asking them to share which holiday pieces bring them joy and which fray their nerves. Elder granddaughter is being taught to refrain from saying, “I don’t like it,” and to use “It’s not my favorite,” instead. I must confess that the responses in the “Not My Favorite” (hereafter referred to as “NMF”) column amused me most. And, true to the subjective nature of musical tastes, in some cases one person’s jingle was another’s jangle.
Two songs received no love from my friends: “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by Elmo and Patsy and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” MB said “Twelve Days” is “too repetitive and who needs that many birds?!?” Her mom, also an MB (MB 1 for our purposes here), added that “It feels like 12 months when you sing it,” and SS complained, “Try signing that song!”
Three folks put “Grandma” in the NMF bin. DF, a perpetually positive person, said that although “Grandma” makes her cringe, she still sings it with a twangy accent when she’s in the shower.
DF’s favorite Christmas song was also the most popular in my unscientific poll: “O Holy Night.” The bathroom acoustics are especially important for this song: “I really sing it loud and hit the high note perfectly. (You can make yourself be an opera singer in the shower.)”
The best endorsement for “O Holy Night” came from KA: “My daughter was born on Christmas Eve, and the last thing I heard before leaving for the hospital was ‘O Holy Night.’ I yelled it out every time a contraction hit, all the way down the road to Fairfax Hospital!”
I was surprised that two votes came in for “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” also known as “Veni, Veni Emmanuel.” Don’t get me wrong; I’ve loved its haunting melody ever since I first heard it in chapel at Christ Church Episcopal School. But I don’t think it’s as widely known as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “Joy to the World.” (Both of those carols also received votes as favorites.) Maybe we should work to change that; as SR said, “(There’s) such love expressed in that one.”
“Carol of the Bells” was mentioned as a favorite by four people. (I wonder which version those folks prefer.) Other familiar carols cited as beloved included “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Silent Night,” “What Child Is This?” “We Three Kings” and “Mary, Did You Know?” WT loves the Pentatonix version of “Mary”; I agree with him wholeheartedly. You can hear it here.
WT also jumped on the “The Christmas Shoes” hatin’ bandwagon, along with KW and well, yes, me. KW asked if she is a Grinch for not liking that piece by NewSong, about a little boy trying to buy shoes for his dying mother so that she can wear them when she meets Jesus. I replied that I must be a Grinch, too. (Speaking of the green one, MC listed “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” as a favorite, adding that Mr. G is “my hero.” An interesting response, since MC is not Grinch-y in the slightest.)
DC was distressed by this turn of events in the survey: “Why do so many hate ‘Christmas Shoes’?!” I think it’s best not to go into detail beyond the fact that writers like WT, KW and me are a snarky lot. Why do some people love Brussels sprouts? Why do others hate snow? These are the eternal questions.
Take, for instance, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Two friends listed it as a favorite while one, MP, said it is “like nails on chalkboard.” Mr. Pettit and I like “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” while JA calls it a NMF, along with “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” and “anything by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Guess I don’t like novelty songs or acts.” In her defense, JA reminded me of “We Need a Little Christmas” from Mame.
Leave it to JL, a musician par excellence, to contribute a list of beautiful songs, including “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “For Unto Us,” from Messiah and “White Christmas.” I am in his debt for sharing “The Sussex Carol.” I’d heard that piece of music many times but had never known its title. Its lilting melody makes me feel like I’m out for a walk in London alongside a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge.
CN painted a lovely picture of her experience with Handel’s masterpiece: “I have an amazing memory of listening to Handel's Messiah in St Martin in the Fields in London decades ago. I still reminisce about the beautiful melodies and the fully decorated church!”
I’m not surprised that KG, whose son is in the military, loves “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I think that song has special meaning for those in the armed forces and their families—-I know it always made me cry as I thought about our extended family a thousand (or more) miles away.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has become a magnet for controversy in the “Me Too” era. I don’t know how SS feels about that, but she is tired of the song: “I hear it all. The. Time.”
For several, the music and the artist are inextricably linked. KD, my favorite Jersey girl, cited “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by Bruce Springsteen (no surprise there) and “anything by Perry Como and Frank Sinatra; that’s for my grandmother.” Other perfect combinations mentioned were “the entire Michael Bublé CD,” (MB 1), “When My Heart Finds Christmas” by Harry Connick, Jr., (JA); “Christmas Hallelujah” by Caleb and Kelsey (GM), “O Holy Night” by Michael Crawford (RC) as well as another version by *NSync (MB).
My favorites? There are so many. I love to sing “Angels We Have Heard On High,” especially all those “Gloria’s” in the chorus. And I find Mannheim Steamroller’s version of “Hark!” energizing, especially when my “To Do” list is long. I still remember cranking up the volume when I slipped in the cassette for the first time as I ran Christmas errands in Papillion, Nebraska.
I tend to get stressed out over the holidays as my perfectionist tendencies roar into high gear. That’s why I gravitate to serene songs like “Still, Still, Still” by Mannheim Steamroller and “All Is Well” by Carrie Underwood and Michael W. Smith. A song like that cuts through the clutter in my mind and the shadows in my heart and brings me back to the essence and beauty of Christmas.
May all be well with you, dear readers, now and through the new year.
And may you always keep singing.