(Note: I wrote the following back in 2009 about a now-somewhat-legendary mix of Christmas music I made in 2001. The reasons why I made it – and how, in the years since, I lost and found the joy that went into it – are what follows. I’m re-publishing it here now because I’ve finally re-created this mix on Spotify. Embed below.)
My feelings on “the holidays” have always been mixed.
Even when I was a kid, I always associated this time of year with a lot of running around. Between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we’d be zipping from one set of grandparents to midnight mass to our house to another set of grandparents and then back home. Then, when I was in high school, my parents divorced, which meant one more place to go on Christmas. I’d head to my Dad’s on the evening of the 23rd, then to grandma’s, then mass, then mom’s, then grandma’s, then home. A two-day, four-house gauntlet.
Then in college…well, you’re never really “home” in college, are you? The house you grew up in and the dorm with your hot plate both get tagged with that description, meaning you’re never really there. This feeling was always exacerbated by the break between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. There was a little bit of me in Chicago, and a little bit of me in Ohio.
After college, I moved into a series of apartments and this feeling of “the holiday gauntlet” was inescapable. I didn’t own a car, so I’d take the train down to the ‘burbs or have my parents pick me up, loaded down with presents and a suitcase. It never felt relaxing to me, pausing just long enough in places to eat, drink and do my best to be merry. I never really felt at home.
Look, I’m not saying being around my family is a miserable experience. It isn’t. I love them, and it doesn’t feel like Christmas to me if you’re not around friends and family. But for the ten years after my parent’s divorce, I never felt like I was in a place, emotionally or physically, to be able to fully enjoy Christmas. Again, there were good times. But I never felt like I could sit back and soak in the spirit (much less The Holy Spirit).
One of the other things I always disliked about Christmas was the music. If you want to put me through hell, make me listen to music I hate. And since most Christmas albums are cash-ins – recorded for easy money or to fulfill a contract requirement – the resulting music is generally awful. It’s not that I hated the sentiments, I just hated the arrangements.
I trace the genesis of my dislike of Christmas music back to my high school days in show choir. From 1990 to 1993, I, along with several of my classmates, spent cold December afternoons and evenings traipsing around the south suburbs singing the most common of Christmas songs. Over and over and over. (And yes, Virginia, there was accompanying choreography.) While this time period accounts for some of my most cherished memories, there is nothing more depressing than realizing you need to take “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” out of that afternoon’s repertoire because you’ll be singing at a nursing home. And I won’t even get into the lack of irony it takes for a bunch of white kids from a Catholic high school to run around singing a calypso version of “Mary’s Boy Child.” After that, I wanted to be as far away from the Christmas standards as possible.
I don’t need to rehash what most of us were feeling in the fall/winter of 2001. But I’ll tell you that my friends and family instinctually drew closer. It was against this backdrop that I decided to counteract my usual grumpiness around Christmas.
So in the winter of 2001, I set out to make a mix of Christmas songs that would give me the spirit again: The ones that married seasonal good cheer with the sense of fun that most people seemed to have this time of year. The result was A Rock and Soul Christmas. This was the cover:
Here were the liner notes:
If you know me (and undoubtedly you do as I’m not generally prone to giving presents to strangers), you know that music plays a rather important role in my life. Sadly, there are quite a few bad Christmas albums out there. Mannheim Steamroller alone has released seven of them.
So this year I set out to pull together some of my favorite Christmas songs — songs that not only expressed the spirit of the season but also didn’t, as a wise man once said, suck. While a few great tracks didn’t make the final cut (Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” Cheech and Chong’s “Santa Claus and His Old Lady”), I think the ones that did fit the bill very well.
A note to my friends of non-Christian faiths: Though the selections here focus mainly on Christian holidays, I think the sentiments expressed within them contain universal truths that we can all appreciate during this time of year. Regardless of your expression of faith, a song like Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” speaks to all of us. A note to my atheist friends: You’re all going to hell. Repent now. Just kidding.
The artwork on the cover was blatantly ripped off from A Charlie Brown Christmas as well as James Brown’s Funky Christmas. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what came from where.
I hope this CD finds you well and happy and gets you in a Christmas mood. If I can save just one person from buying A Rosie O’Donnell Christmas then it will be worth it.
Happy holidays and much love,
I sent the mix to a bunch of friends as a substitute for cards and presents and it went over really well. Every year since, I hear from one or two friends who tell me they’ve pulled out RSC during a party or while they’re opening presents. This brings me no small amount of joy.
Like most endeavors of this type, it ended up making itself. This isn’t the coolest, hippest mix of Christmas tracks ever assembled or even a collection of my personal favorites. In fact, it’s deliberately corny in some instances. Basically, I wanted to create both a Christmas-party record and a Christmas party-record. It’s also designed for all-ages listening (There’s one track on there that’s a little heavy on innuendo for the littlest ones, I suppose, but since I have friends with kids who say they play it, I’m not losing sleep over it).
I put together another mix the next year called Songs For Swinging Santas, which mixed jazz, blues, and cocktail hour together. It too was well-received, and I figured I’d do a variation on the theme each year.
Then, in 2003, I got married for the first time, which added yet another level of familial stress, not to mention more places to be, including an occasional trip to Phoenix to see my ex’s family. They were all very nice people but…well, suffice it to say there’s a fair amount of romance in the notion of a White Christmas and that gets all shot to hell in Phoenix. Plus, it was our first year as a married couple and we spent the holidays on a honeymoon cruise around the Caribbean and this, coupled with a lack of ideas as to what to do for that year’s holiday mix meant I passed on putting one together.
For a number of reasons, I lost the spirit again over the couple of years that followed. The nadir of my holiday experiences was Christmas 2005 when my marriage was breaking up. As luck would have it, we were spending the holidays in Phoenix that year. It’s not possible for me to describe how isolated and out-of-time I felt then. It was awful. One of the lowest points of my life.
The echo of that time carried through the successive holiday seasons, which brought some discord to my then-newish relationship with Erin. She loves everything about Christmas, always has. For someone whose feelings about the holidays were mixed to begin with and were now marred by an altogether unpleasant association, this was hard to take. Also – and this really is deserving of special mention – she loves The Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait. It is a holy relic to her. All due respect to Karen and Richard, but…it just wasn’t my thing.
I don’t know what lousy metaphor best describes the last couple years – a wound that’s slowly healed? A rough edge sanded over time? – but I’d found myself slowly coming around on the holidays again. This year, I noticed something weird: I was getting excited for Christmas. When I saw some Christmas trees on display, I involuntarily said “Oooh!” Out loud. I oohed, people! At first, I thought my renewed sense of Christmas spirit derived from all the folks telling me how much Rock and Soul Christmas was again adding to their Christmas celebrations. But earlier this week, I figured out what was really driving it:
For the first time in 18 years, I was going to be home for Christmas.
Or perhaps, more specifically, Erin and I would own a home for Christmas. We closed on this place during Thanksgiving week, just in time for the grind. And though we’d be running the gauntlet again this year, I was looking forward to it. Because no matter what, at the end of the day, we’d be at home together, not just in a place we called home. Not some apartment we were renting because we weren’t sure where we wanted to end up, not spending the night at our parents’ place, not in a convent singing for a bunch of nuns and mothers…no, we’d be home.
Hey, I realize that sounds trite. For God’s sakes, it’s cribbing the name of one of those cursed songs from the days of show choir. But it just makes sense now.
I’ve been blessed with many, many gifts this year. If you’re reading this post, you’re one of the people responsible since I pretty much I owe my career to the Internet. (2016 Note: This is still true, but keep in mind this was written in 2009. I think maybe 20 people read this blog then.) Eight years after I put together A Rock and Soul Christmas, I feel like I’m once again in a place where I can really enjoy it. So I’d like to share it with you.
(Hey 2016 Me here. A couple notes on the above which is limited by what’s available on Spotify.
- The original mix contained a different version of the Bowie/Crosby duet. It was intended as an interlude because it contained the awkward dialogue between the two at the beginning. That version feels way more Christmas-y to me.
- The second-to-last track was originally a duet with Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I know how this song has been recast recently, but it’s never felt that way to me. And feminist responses to it here, here and here say it better than I could. But that’s not why it’s not here. It’s simply unavailable on Spotify (oddly, it’s the sole track off that Tom Jones album of duets that isn’t available there). That’s a shame because that version dials up the ridiculous-ness of that song and brings out the notion that the two people singing it are engaged in a consensual tete-a-tete. You can judge for yourself in the live version here: