Thursday, December 9, 2010

Not Your Average Christmas List

16 reasons I like Christmas...

...because I couldn't come up with 25. Conveniently for me, there are 16 days until Christmas.

by Brendan Cavanagh

Of course we all appreciate Christmas for a variety of reasons- family, friends, togetherness, presents, food, the usual. I'm going to try to stray away from those aspects, focusing instead on some of the more tangible facets of Christmas present in pop culture. Here are 16 songs, movies, and television programs about Christmas that give me that warm, fuzzy feeling during the frost-bitten month of December:

16. Jingle All the Way (1996) - I'll admit, this is not a holiday classic for many, and it's pretty cheesy. I mean, it's a family Christmas comedy starring Ahhnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad and that kid who played Anakin Skywalker in the Phantom Menace. But it's a movie I grew up with, and I honestly think it's pretty funny, especially a scene in which Terminator dukes it out with about a hundred Santa Clauses. Arnold is actually not bad at comedy (think Kindergarten Cop ["IT'S NOT A TUMAHH!], and a lot of his action movies are kind of laughable today).

15. Stereomood - A buddy of mine just pointed this site out to me a couple days ago. It has a plethora of playlists designed to match a specific mood, such as "It's Raining," or "Just Woke Up" or "Afrodesiac (sexy African rhythms?)." But it's not necessarily a bunch of Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin and all that jazz, rather favoring more independent and lesser-known artists. For instance, on the "Christmas playlist," one may find original holiday songs by Canadian songstress Feist, masters of suburban ennui Arcade Fire or even hip-hop group Run D.M.C.

14. Target's Christmas Playlist (2010) - I noticed early this year that Target's decided to market much more independent music, explaining why Vampire Weekend can be found littered along the shelf among Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey. So it is with Target's annual seasonal playlist celebrating the magic of Christmas, targeting (so to speak) the little things in particular. Notable appearances are made by Best Coast/Wavves, Guster and Coconut Records- a moniker for actor Jason Schwartzman's solo project.

13. Tift Merritt, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" (2010) - Tift Merritt is a laid-back, female singer-songwriter in the same vein as 60s/70s folk artists Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris who has recently come to my attention. A burned copy of her latest studio album, See You on the Moon, was presented to me a while back with a bonus Christmas track included. It fits in really well with the general atmosphere of her record- a mellow approach to the holiday standard that gives it a little bit more of a somber, real feel. "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."

12. Holiday Inn (1942) - An old black-and-white musical film about two guys, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, who decide to convert Bing's farm into a concert venue only open on holidays. It's a feel-good story with plenty of romance and charm, and it features the song "White Christmas," classically mistaken to originate in the subsequent film, White Christmas. The movie is one that I distinctly recall appreciating as a kid, and it's definitely one to revisit at Christmas time, as it is a very seasonal movie that practically demands to be watched alone on a late winter night.

11. The Band, "Must Be Christmas Tonight" (1977) - It's always fun when I discover that a favorite band of mine has a Christmas song out there somewhere. This one in particular was included on The Band's final studio album, Islands, but it has an even better an alternate take appended as a bonus track to the end of Northern Lights - Southern Cross. It's simply a fast-tempo description of Jesus' birth in the stable from the point of view of a mere shepherd, featuring Rink Danko on vocals, lending the song a little more sincerity and soul.

10. Home Alone (1990)/Home Alone 2 (1992) - A lot of people forget amidst all the comedic sabotage and hijinks set up by the movies' lonely and haunted protagonist, Kevin, that these movies are centered around Christmas. Not only do they depict how Kevin's family accidentally desert him on two Christmases in three years by traveling to another country, but they also focus heavily on commonly-experienced familial themes like love, unity, forgiveness and comfort. Take the scene in Home Alone when Kevin walks around his neighborhood and wistfully observes other families enjoying their night together, or in Home Alone 2 when Kevin prays to God under the giant tree on Rockefeller Square that all he wants, if nothing else for the rest of his life, is to see his mom and tell his family he's sorry. The first two installments of the Home Alone series are, as one Youtube member described, "touch warming" accounts of the importance of family, though personally, I always related more to Kevin's younger cousin Fuller.

9. It's A Wonderful Life (1946) - Yeah yeah, I know everyone always lists Frank Capra's holiday masterpiece as an essential component of Christmas, but hey, it's a wonderful movie, and it takes place on Christmas. But what's brilliant is that, although it's hailed as a Christmas classic, most of the movie doesn't even take place on Christmas! It features a suicidal Jimmy Stewart and his guardian angel, Clarence, revisiting scenes in Jimmy's past that proved to be crucial, demonstrating how drastically they would be different if Jimmy had never lived. At the end, though, Jimmy breaks down and realizes how important he truly is and rushes home on Christmas Eve to find his family and friends all gathered together to celebrate the festivities as well as their appreciation for him. The final, almost heart-rending scene features Jimmy's brother leading the crowd in an anthemic recitation of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," followed by the movie-closing "Auld Lang Syne." Can we do that sometime, guys? I want to sing that song with a group of people.

8. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, "Christmas Canon" - I don't know if I have such a strong attachment to this song because it's a beautifully haunting amalgam of children singing over an adult orchestra, or because Pachabel's "Canon in D" is the best song I've ever played and memorized on the piano. In any case, I always strain to hear this song played on the radio between Thanksgiving and Christmas because it's so rarely played and it's so pretty. I used to have visions of performing this song as a student body at my grade school's Christmas program, settling instead on bizarrely doing White Christmas in the spring, which we really did.

7. Bob Rivers, "The 12 Pains of Christmas" (1988) - Now here's a song that never fails to be played at least ten times a day on any given Christmas radio station, but I love it anyway. Bob Rivers is a bit of a comedian when it comes to creating music, and here he takes a modern, pessimistic spin on the traditional "12 Days of Christmas." Who doesn't relate to frantic adults dreading dinner with their in-laws, or to the people who are driven mad by countless charities, or to their dad, literally and figuratively, blowing a fuse trying to hang festive lights? "FINE *whack* YOU'RE SO SMART *whack* YOU RIG UP THE LIGHTS!"

6. The Office Christmas episodes (2005, 2006) - The Office is not one for spicing up typical daily office life with a few holiday-themed episodes sprinkled into the schedule. Seasons Two and Three in particular featured incredibly funny Christmas specials that are, at times, difficult to watch. In Season Two, for instance, Michael Scott is frustrated after receiving a hand-knit oven glove Phyllis makes him for the office's Secret Santa, so he proposes a "YAN-kee SWAP" instead, although each gift was picked out for a specific person. Season Three took things to a more depressing level, as Michael brings a pair of waitresses from Benihana to the office Christmas party, attempting to make one of them his girlfriend. The problem is, he can't tell which one is which (as he claims Asians "all look alike"), so he tags one of them with a permanent marker. What's great about the Office's Christmas specials is that, though they may start out sad and miserable, they always end with a raucous drinking party that allows the staff to let loose and learn to appreciate each other.

5. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) - This movie focuses on a sexy, young Judy Garland and her family living in St. Louis as they anticipate the opening of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition World's Fair. The children soon learn that the family will be relocating because the father's job to New York City, causing them to miss out on the Fair, as well as new found romances and friends and their familial roots in St. Louis. On Christmas Eve, Judy Garland's character, Esther, encounters her younger sister, Tootie, sullenly waiting for Santa Claus to arrive, to no avail. They begin discussing the upcoming move to New York, which has Tootie in tears of reluctance, so Esther attempts to comfort her by singing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," which immediately became popular after the film's release. This only further depresses Tootie, who runs out sobbing into the yard to bash in the heads of all of her snowmen in a distressed rage. It's enough to make you cry your eyes out, you feel so bad for her.

4. Bing Crosby and David Bowie, "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" (1977) - In one of television's most bizarre collaborations, David Bowie appeared on Bing Crosby's last annual Merrie Olde Christmas special in 1977 to sing a song with old Bing. Apparently, he hated the song "Little Drummer Boy," which is what Bing ended up singing, so he co-wrote "Peace On Earth" with Ian Fraser, which he wound up singing over Bing's part. The song turned out quite lovely, and you'll find yourself singing Bowie's part over Bing's because the music swells and makes it so damn pretty. I can recall countless Christmas mornings watching this video in wonder as I simultaneously creamed my dad in Battleship.

3. The Jackson 5 Christmas Album (1970) - This is my favorite collection of Christmas songs of all time. It catches the Jackson 5 right in the middle of their insane popularity and success, and Michael on the very cusp of his beginnings as a solo artist with Motown Records. The album contains eleven songs, all of which are good, I believe, and some of the 5's renditions of popular Christmas songs themselves became standards, such as the energetic take on "Up On The Housetop," which has Michael listing all the things he and his brothers would like for Christmas. Others are a little slower and more conventional, featuring brother Jemaine on lead vocals, but are memorable nonetheless- one of my favorites being the album's opener, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

2. ABC Family Harry Potter Weekend - It seems as if every other week is Harry Potter weekend these days. I believe, in all honesty, that I've experienced three of them while I've been away at school. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Although Harry Potter weekends are usually sporadic and arrive unpredictably throughout the year, Christmas is the one time of year that demands one to be included in ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas. Harry Potter, though admittedly a bit of a favorite of mine, like the aforementioned movies on this list delves heavily into commonly-understood themes of family, friendship, and affection, feelings typically evoked over the holidays. The movies even feature some memorable Christmas scenes, like the first time Harry gets real presents, or that time Harry and the Weasleys celebrate the holiday and Mr. Weasley's health at 12 Grimmauld Place. Unfortunately, none of these scenes are found on Youtube, so help yourself to a deleted scene from the Christmas portion of the Sorcerer's Stone.

1. Bob Dylan, "Must Be Santa" (2009) - Yes, Bob Dylan, a Jewish-born folk singer well-known for his late 70s/early 80s born-again Christian zeal, released a Christmas album last year! I actually went out and bought it, not only because I'm a fan of Dylan, but also because all of his royalties from the album's sales would go to Feeding America in the USA, Crisis in the UK and the World Food Programme. I don't actually own a lot of his albums, so I figured I could make a little contribution here for a worthy cause. And you know what? To be honest, it's not half bad. It just sounds like an aging musician singing a bunch of popular Christmas carols, nothing outrageously jarring about the vocals. Although Dylan took a rather traditional approach to these songs (they sound more like they came out of the 50s than the 2000s), he decided to turn "Must Be Santa" into a frenetic, fast-paced polka, and it's pretty darn catchy (what other song blends a list of reindeer with a list of past presidents [both share Nixon]?). But then shortly afterward, Dylan released a video for the song- his first video in about ten years- and it's insane. Throughout the entire video, which takes place at the uproarious, drunken Christmas party you wish you could attend, Dylan awkwardly dances in and out of frame, even defying the laws of physics at times. Interspersed is a short sequence of a man inexplicably trying everything- throwing vases, swinging on chandeliers, jumping out windows, etc.- to evade a group of guys. At the video's close, as the man sprints past the front porch to freedom, Dylan and Santa, side by side, exchange shrugs and knowing glances that seem to say, "Some guys can't handle Christmas." It's the zaniest Christmas video out there, and it's one of the main reasons I'm excited about the holiday's imminent approach.


  1. that midget being punched was fucking awesome. also fuller. hilarious.

    but I have a gripe here.



  2. Good point. They mention Father Christmas a couple times in the early books, but that's the only real background provided for their celebration of Christmas. I guess it just doesn't make sense. Then again, apparently Dumbledore is gay.