I have been home sick for the past two days which means I have spent a lot of time listening to music while lying in bed or the couch. Today I put together a playlist of all my favorite Christmas songs to help me get in the mood, since the LA weather has not been doing much for me on that front.
Growing up, we only listened to one Christmas album in my house: The Christmas Album by Neil Diamond. I had a copy on cassette and it was the soundtrack to somewhere between five and ten Christmases, from December 1st all the way through the new year. That album was Christmas to me, as much as Santa, presents or A Charlie Brown Christmas, it was part of my Christmas ritual. At least it was until Neil Diamond released A Cherry Cherry Christmas that saw him completely leaning into a cover of Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song".1
Later after my parents divorced and my mother decided she loved music, I would come home from college to find her playing two different Christmas CDs at opposite ends of our house, both with the volume turned all the way up. My mother does not have the best hearing, so this was the only way she could hear music no matter where in the house she was.
I, on the other hand, do have pretty good hearing which meant hearing Josh Groban singing "O, Holy Night" and George Strait singing "Jingle Bell Rock" simultaneously for hours on end. It only took one year of this to put me off the classic Christmas hits for a long time.2
This worked out just fine as I had by this point surrounded myself with a circle of aetheists, agnostics and other bah humbuggers with a dislike of Christmas so intense they would make Ebenezer Scrooge say "Lights, please."
But as time marched on and my music taste -expanded-improved, I started picking up non-traditional Christmas songs that I secretly loved but always presented to my friends as "I mean, I hate Christmas music but this song is pretty good."3
This included the originals on that Sufjan Christmas boxset, "Angel Song ~イヴの鐘~" by the brilliant green from my college J-rock phase and of course The Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)" or more specifically the Asobi Seksu cover of it). But my dislike of Christmas music remained firm until I found a Christmas Song that I truly fell in love with in the unlikeliest of places, and it changed my mind entirely about the genre.
The song is "Christmas is Interesting" by Jonathan Coulton. It is slow and unsettling, the lyrics quickly building absurd imagery that make you question them, until he sings these lines and you know that it really is about Christmas after all:
Christmas is interesting like a knife in your heart
Christmas is interesting how it tears you apart
Coulton often uses the "sing a bunch of nonsense and let the audience figure it out" song-writing tactic perfected by They Might Be Giants, but the heart of this song really speaks to how I have felt at Christmas every year since I was a kid listening to Neil Diamond with my family.
I have been a Coulton fan for a long time but never really noticed this song until last year when he put out an album of non-traditional Christmas songs with John Roderick, and "Christmas is Interesting" got a new arrangement. Now accompanied by a solemn synthesizer and pathetic set of jingle bells, the loneliness deep in the lyrics is given a chance to peek its head out and say "Hey, asshole! Feel terrible!" which is exactly the Ghost of Christmas Future I need every year.
It seems counter-intuitive that a song reminding me how every Christmas makes me feel terrible was the secret to letting me enjoy Christmas music again, but I am not questioning it. And of course there are other sad Christmas songs hiding among the happy ones; now I feel like I can love all of them in a way I was not able to for a long time.
So no matter where you are on Christmas morning, be it with your extended family in your hometown or sitting alone in your two-bedroom apartment trying to figure out which restaurants are open for delivery, and you find yourself confused as to why this joyful holiday is making you feel tense and jittery, try putting on "Christmas is Interesting".4
Maybe your anxiety is from spending time with your racist family, or the thoughts of how expensive it was to fly back home to see people you barely like, but maybe it is something deeper. Listening to this weird, sad song helped me immensely. Maybe it can help you exhale.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan.
1. I know the disparity between the number of Christmas songs to ones about Chanukah is extreme, but The Chanukah Song? Fuck.^
2. Note: this happened before 2009, meaning my love for Neil Diamond trumped my utter distaste for Christmas music, at least until Neil broke out the yarmulke and his electric guitar.^
3. This is a lie, no one ever wanted to talk to me about music.^
4. Probably using headphones, unless you want to turn Christmas morning into a group therapy session.^