Saturday, December 27, 2014

O Holy Hell

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Christmas music. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Today, at a safe remove from the event, Jeff addresses the auditory challenge -- CLH

O Holy Hell
By Jeff Fitzgerald

I love Christmas, I really do. I love it even in spite of the crass overcommercialization, the hackneyed TV specials, and the current PC battle to eradicate any semblance of Christianity in society, up to and including Mexican guys named Jesus.

I love Christmas even though I worked in retail for many years. Nothing will beat the holiday spirit out of you more thoroughly than spending 84 hours a week in a store with stressed holiday shoppers, overworked employees, and worst of all, the insipid and incessant Christmas songs piped in through the overhead speakers.

It isn’t so much the idea of Christmas music, of which I’m generally in favor. It’s the kind of holiday music that gets piped into the stores (and, in my later career, onto car lots). The same small handful of shopworn tunes, done and redone so many times they now exist as a vague homeopathic essence of themselves.

It is a corollary to Warhol’s 15-minutes-of-fame dictum that everyone, during that quarter hour in the spotlight, will make a Christmas album. Every Top Forty pan flasher, every minor TV celebrity, every C-list movie star who honestly believes that he or she is more of a singer than an actor (and not much of either, usually). Hell, these days, even a YouTube viral sensation famous for playing “Super Freak” on a nose flute will have a go at “Jingle Bell Rock” before the last seconds of fame tick off the clock.

Christmas, in its secular form, has been about tradition since at least the 18th century. This was, of course, after the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in New England because it gave people an excuse to make merry. Because if anything pissed off the Puritans, it was the thought of people somewhere having fun. Tradition comes from doing the same things more or less every year, and the American experiment allowed us to mix and match bits of other cultures’ traditions and incorporate them into our own. We took the Christmas tree from Germany, Santa Claus from 4th century Lycia (now part of Turkey—or at least it was the last time I checked on it), and getting drunk and starting a fight with the in-laws from the Irish.

By repeating these small rituals year after year, we soon developed a coherent American version of Christmas. Borrowing richly from our European heritage, we took almost everything from the Old Country and Americanized it. The lowly ham, eaten by the farmer class in England who couldn’t afford delicacies such as turkey or goose, came to my beloved Commonwealth of Virginia and became the decadent Smithfield country ham. Various versions of St. Nick and Father Christmas were amalgamated into Santa Claus, an altruistic and supernatural giver of gifts and pitchman for a magical sugar water made in Georgia.

It wasn’t long before these traditions were incorporated into our popular music. Americans came together and longed for chestnuts roasted on an open fire, even in places where they would be more likely to eat boiled peanuts or pecan pie. We didn’t know what figgy pudding was, but we wanted some, and we wanted it RIGHT GAHDAMNED NOW! We rooted for Rudolph and were fans of Frosty. We became aware that Santa Claus knew when we were naughty and sometimes guiltily listened for a telltale burp from too much Coca-Cola to give away the spying elf. Even those of us who had never even seen a horse-drawn open sleigh pictured ourselves laughing all the way, in spite of the bitter cold and horse flatulence. We swore to be home for the white Christmas of our dreams, because we knew it would be a blue Christmas without us. We saw mommy kissing Santa Claus, and were prepared to tell Child Protective Services about it in case of divorce proceedings, or recover the memory for our therapists in case we had daddy issues that caused us to pierce our noses and date assholes later in life.

And all that was merry and bright, until everybody who thought--true or not--that they could carry a tune in a dump truck, started rehashing the same small handful of classics over and over until even deaf people were sick to death of them. A radio station could go a whole day playing nothing but different renditions of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” And it feels like some of them actually do.

If there is an upside to the digital revolution which has thrown the hubristic too-long-monolithic music business into a panic (and also, unfortunately, is right now screwing the artists even harder than the record labels ever did), it is that we are free to choose what we do and don’t listen to. I have satellite radio in my car and uncountable options at home through the miracle of broadband. I don’t watch network TV, except for sports, so I don’t have to risk hearing annoying pop on some lame sitcom or warmed-over drama that wasn’t good enough for cable. I have become, as so many have these days, an island unto myself, at least as far as the import end of it goes. Nothing comes on my island without a specific invitation.

But this time of year, it is virtually impossible to avoid the tsunami-strength wave of the same damned Christmas songs. Whenever something new manages to sneak into the lineup, such as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” or Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” it is quickly played ad nauseam until we’re just as sick of it as “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” Elmo and Patsy, a plague on both your houses.

It is just possible, though, that the yearly musical crime wave of overplayed Christmas songs does serve some purpose. As I said, we are increasingly becoming islands unto ourselves; even the most time honored traditions are fading in the Age of The Perpetual Now. Perhaps there’s adequate magic left in Christmas that this inescapable torrent of holiday-themed corporate detritus can knit the generations together just long enough for us to remember the whole e pluribus unum thing. Now more than ever. Because if the terrifying ordeal of Roseanne Barr squawking her way through “Santa Baby” can’t bring us together, then all hope truly is lost. 

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