FEATURE: The HALF CLOTH Guide to Christmas – Part 1
by Chad Jewett
I’ll begin with what, by December 31st, will probably be obvious: I love the Holidays. Some people are bummed about Halloween being over on November 1st; I’m psyched that it’s no longer ridiculous that I’m pining for eggnog and that one Hershey Kiss commercial where the Kisses are playing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” But I also appreciate the fact that not everyone loves the holidays – this is probably why so many classic Christmas films feature so much ennui, doubt, anxiety, and melancholy. Seriously, for a film called It’s A Wonderful Life, anyone who skipped the last ten minutes would be forgiven for thinking a better title might have been It’s A Woeful Existence. It can be a tough season, full of a lot of mixed-feelings. So consider our three-part Guide to Christmas, which will cover our favorite records, films, and holiday specials, something of a compromise. On the one hand, it’s just a list of entertainments I look forward to every year once Target starts sneaking in tinsel and red-frosting Oreos in the back corner of the store, in the hopes that you’ll check out the stuff you’re not familiar with and take a second look at the stuff you could recite in your sleep. On the other hand, I’ve tried to assemble a good collection of all that Christmas and the Holidays evoke in our minds, both good and bad. Consider it the Half Cloth Guide to both Christmas and “Christmas.”
Various Artists – A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963)
Since I’m largely organizing the three parts of this feature chronologically, according to where I feel they make the most sense in the season, Phil Spector’s 1963 compilation A Christmas Gift For You has to come first. If you’re an early shopper, there isn’t a single better album on the planet to have filling your car between stops at Pier 1 and Barnes and Noble. No single record has more fully captured the excitement of the holidays than A Christmas Gift For You, which features thirteen holiday standards, all arranged in Phil Spector’s pop-soul “Wall of Sound”-pocket symphony style. The record swings and blares, punctuating a child-like excitability with brilliant horns and girl-group harmonies. It’s just a thrilling listen. In fact, while we tend to associate our contemporary version of the holidays more with the wryness of A Christmas Story or the mall-like perfection of Elf, the way the holidays sound is a lot closer to Darlene Love’s rendition of “Winter Wonderland” and The Ronettes “Sleigh Ride” than anything else. Every year Love swings by The Late Show with David Letterman to perform “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (aka the greatest Christmas song not sung by Nat King Cole), and every year it’s perfect. Plus, if you’re still not feeling the season, keep this in mind: A Christmas Gift For You came out a full three-years before the apex of the “Studio-As-Instrument’s” golden age (1966, when Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds, and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and “Can’t Hurry Love” were all being recorded). Thus, it’s not only a high water mark in terms of Christmas music, but also in terms of pop music history.
Sufjan Stevens – Songs For Christmas (2006)
I’m recommending you try to get to Sufjan Stevens five-disc boxset, Songs For Christmas early in the season for two reasons. One is the sheer breadth of material to be covered: the set offers forty-two songs (culled from Christmas albums Stevens recorded for friends and family in the early 2000s), some of which require a bit more digesting than others, especially the set’s last disc, Peace: Songs for Christmas, Vol. V, which departs from the pop-folk of earlier discs with more abstract and avant-garde songs. The other reason to get to Songs For Christmas early is that the set offers the widest emotional triptych for the holidays I can think of, meaning it can be a helpful emotional buoy (orchestral pop numbers like “Get Behind Me Santa!” are the most fun Stevens has ever been), but can also be deeply empathetic about the sadness and anxiety that can creep in this time of year (“Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!)” is simply heartbreaking for several reasons, not least of which is that it’s uncannily recognizable emotionally). It’s likely not a go-to disc to get excited for Christmas Eve. But in between the sweeping emotional gestures of the set are fascinating dispatches from Stevens’ early and mid-career days, offering evidence of Sufjan’s growth as a composer and showing the development from his early days as an almost purely folk-oriented singer-songwriter to the sheer expansiveness of Come On Feel The llinoise!. This also means seeing him experiment with arrangements and studio-construction: the set features multiple renditions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as well as increasingly thoughtful takes on other traditional Christmas hymns (“Once in Royal David’s City” from Vol. V and “Angels We Have Heard On High” from Vol. II are especially moving). For an artist famous for his attempts at comprehensive renderings of the world around us, Sufjan Stevens never got closer to definitive than when he tried to get to the bottom of what “The Holidays” mean for us.
Home Alone (1990)
I’m not going to try to intellectualize why I love Home Alone (at least not too much). After all, there’s a lot of reasons why twenty-seven year old me is a bit bothered by a borderline-rich kid torturing thieves in thread-bare rags, or the fact that Home Alone might be the least class-conscious movie of all time. But the movie also offers one of the finer emotional moments I’ve ever seen on film (Kevin and “Old Man” Marley’s conversation about fear, family, and age during Christmas Eve mass), and one of the all-time great performances via Catherine O’Hara, not to mention the fact that John Candy’s hilarious monologue in the back of a rent-a-truck was ad-libbed (!!!). The ending (twenty-three year old spoiler alert!), wherein Kevin sees Marley reunited with his estranged son gets me every time. But Home Alone is also simply 90’s nostalgia distilled: a (impossibly youthful) Michael Jordan cardboard cut-out!! old Pepsi and Frito-Lay logos!!!, people you know affording first-class seats on an airplane!!!! The movie is poignant without becoming pure melodrama (apparently a very difficult equation for Christmas movies) and hilarious (even if you should feel bad about laughing at the human Wile E. Coyote destructiveness of the film’s climax). If you’re having trouble finding your holiday spirit, Home Alone offers an early remedy, a dispatch from kid-dom, back when your nine-year-old self gleefully approved of Kevin McCallister.
I said I wasn’t going to over-intellectualize Home Alone. But I’m really not going to over-intellectualize Elf. Will Ferrell, who is at least 6’ 5”, plays a Christmas elf who visits New York City (and, really, the rest of the world below the North Pole) for the first time. It’s a funny premise and a funny movie, so let’s leave it at the following five quotes, courtesy of IMDB:
“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.”
Puffin: “Hey Buddy wanna pick some snowberries?”
Buddy: “Not now Arctic Puffin.”
“So, good news – I saw a dog today. Have you seen a dog? You probably have.”
“Francisco! That’s fun to say! Francisco… Frannncisco… Franciscooo…”
“I’m sorry I ruined your lives, and crammed eleven cookies into the VCR.”
Futurama (“Xmas Story,” “A Tale of Two Santas”)
In our Guide to Halloween I had a near impossible time choosing just one Simpsons’ Halloween episode to highlight. Honestly, I chose Treehouse of Horror V simply because it had the most Groundskeeper Willie. But when it came time for our Guide to Christmas I had the opposite problem: there isn’t a single Simpsons’ Christmas episode I like. While Matt Groening and company tend to find an excellent balance between satire and optimism, their Christmas episodes tend to be almost acrid in their bitter take on the holiday. Lucky for us, however, Groening’s other creation, Futurama, has offered (at least) two amazing Christmas episodes. Gently poking at the traditions of the Holiday (rather than pouring acid all over them, a la The Simpsons) “Xmas Story” (season two) and “A Tale of Two Santas” (season three) feature Philip Fry (a 20th century man frozen and thawed out in the 30th century) contending with a new version of Christmas that features a tyrannical Robot Santa who deems everyone naughty (except Zoidberg!). Between the two episodes we get a robotic Tiny Tim, Coolio as Kwanzaabot and the Ackbar-like alien, Zoidberg, dressed up as Jesus, as well as a hilarious closing moment between two evil robots, Bender and Robot Santa himself. While Futurama gets its share of subversion into these episodes, it’s a lot more fun to laugh at the foibles we all have around the Holidays than to sneer at them. Also, did I mention John Goodman does the voice for Robot Santa? John Goodman does the voice for Robot Santa.