The eighth song of Christmas: No words

It was the first and only time I lived alone. I’d graduated from college in spring of the previous year and accepted a job I didn’t want, out of sheer desperation. They began flying me to Raleigh, NC to work on a project the following winter, and I’d spent a lot of two-week stints in a room at a crappy little motel off what was then called North Boulevard (that might reveal my age range to any Raleigh natives who happen to be reading this). That summer, I’d agreed to relocate to Raleigh to save the company airfare, and I’d moved into a one-bedroom apartment. I lived there for a year in which I didn’t put up posters, barely furnished it, and hardly ever bought any real groceries.

Through the fall, I had practically no social life, going from the apartment to work and back, driving home to Virginia every weekend, and subsisting on fast food for the most part. In November, I started dating a woman I didn’t really want to date, and I’ve never been lonelier. Fortunately for both of us, the relationship didn’t last beyond the holidays.

It was a horrible season. I was on the cusp of meeting my future wife, but there was no way of knowing that at the time. (Besides, that’s another story.) I was 300 miles away from the people I loved most, and could no longer afford to drive up every weekend. I tried to be festive. I bought a cheap six-foot string of colored lights at an Eckerd and draped it over an opening/window between the kitchen and living room. I’d plug it in at night and could see its glow from almost anywhere in the apartment, including my bedroom. I still remember waking up to that ghostly shimmer several times each night, and somehow taking a small amount of comfort in it. I owned a portable CD player, so I bought a couple of Christmas CDs to further increase that comfort. One of them changed my outlook and helped me feel alive again.

I fancied myself a fan of jazz, but a better word would have been “dilettante.” I didn’t — and still don’t — know much about that music form, but I enjoyed some better-known pieces. There was an eclectic music store nearby, where I occasionally indulged myself by dropping in, chatting with the clerks, listening whatever they were playing at the time, and pretending to know why its form mattered. That’s where I bought the CDs. One was an anthology from a jazz label named for the initials of its founders, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen. I knew nothing about them or GRP Records, but I recognized the names of the songs on “A GRP Christmas Collection” and that was enough.

The first time I played that CD, I scratched my head a little at some of the arrangements. Most of the songs had no words, which was the first surprise. This wasn’t jazz like the other CD, which featured vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. This was jazz instrumentals.

The second surprise was, it wasn’t always true to the melodies I knew and loved. Big shocker for someone who thinks he understands jazz. In most cases, the song might start out with the melody, but would proceed to bend, twist, stretch, warp, and otherwise transform it in ways I still don’t understand enough to explain in words that belong in a real music review. Music theory is lost on me, but I believe one of the relevant terms is “syncopation.” And I felt syncopated all to hell.

So there I was, stuck with a CD of Christmas songs that I’d hoped would improve my mood, but that were instead making me angrier and at least a little confused. But night after night, I’d pop the CD in and fall asleep to it, drifting in and out of the colorful shimmer from the kitchen window as I floated on the sounds of David Benoit’s piano, Tom Scott’s tenor sax, Dave Valentin’s flute, Gary Burton’s vibraphone, and a lot more mind-bending instrumental change agents. I began to understand the concept of semuta, a mind-altering musical “drug” mentioned in Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series.

Needless to say, the CD grew on me. By the time Christmas arrived, it was giving me the comfort I’d sought, and no, there were no actual drugs involved. It’s just a humbling, dissonant, beautiful collection of songs that has since become relatable, approachable, and in my personal collection, traditional. It became the friend I needed that season, and got me through to better times in the new year.

It’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite track, but I’d say two of them stand millimeters taller than the rest. I’ve already mentioned one of them in this series — I included Daryl Stuermer’s amazing “Little Drummer Boy” on the list of stocking stuffers accompanying my pick for the sixth song of Christmas. I don’t want to repeat a song, so tonight I’m going with the other — “Silver Bells” by Kevin Eubanks.

Eubanks’ guitar is almost supernatural, at once haunting and reassuring, welcoming and off-putting. I get lost in it every time. I recommend lying back and closing your eyes as you listen, letting him take you on a trip along the busy city sidewalks, dressed in holiday style. You might come back a changed person.


None in this version except a very cool “Geh-jee-geh” beatbox effect.

Stocking stuffers:

Day 9:

Can’t polka hole in this one….

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The seventh song of Christmas: A white trash Christmas

If the subtitle grabbed your attention and raised any hackles, know that I used it ironically. I don’t like the phrase “white trash” for two reasons. First, the qualifier “white” implies that “trash” by itself is black, and I don’t much care for that sentiment. Secondly, the word “trash” smacks of elitism when it’s applied to people, and as such, is used to demean those whom we see as being of a lower class than our own.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and in the case of Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family,” that treasure lies in the narrator’s familial relationships. Certainly, Keen’s blend of Americana, bluegrass, country, and folk is associated with “white trash.” And the picture he paints of his family is associated with the same. I say it’s a painting of personality, and I’ve seen some of that personality at my own family gatherings. This can’t be white trash, because it portrays so much color.

The lyrics crack me up to this day, especially the shopping lists in the two refrains. I’m fairly certain this is the only Christmas song ever to use the word “tampon” in a refrain, and that’s only one example of this family’s complete honesty with one another. Some of the lyrics sound judgmental, but I submit they’re not meant that way. Rather, they’re meant to show love and respect, bodily functions and all.

You probably noticed I linked to the live version above. I’m not including a link to the studio version, because the live version is far superior in my opinion, and because apparently the internet agrees with me, as I couldn’t find the studio version on the first page of search results. And I’m too lazy to search further. Plus, I’m going to see Star Wars soon, so I’ll wrap up….

I love songs like this, that capture regional flavor in music and lyrics, typically of marginalized groups. That’s how my picks for this entry’s “stocking stuffers” are related; they’re from other regions featuring other specific groups of people who’ve been stereotyped. These people are both white and black, but none of them is trash.


Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk
At our Christmas party.
We were drinkin’ champagne punch and
Homemade eggnog.

Little Sister brought her new boyfriend.
He was a Mexican.
We didn’t know what to think of him
‘Til he sang, “Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad!”

Brother Ken brought his kids with him —
The three from his first wife, Lynn,
And the two identical twins
From his second wife, Mary Nell.

Of course he brought his new wife, Kay,
Who talks all about AA,
Chain smokin’ while the stereo plays,
“Noel, Noel, the First Noel.”

Carve the turkey, turn the ballgame on.
Mix margaritas when the eggnog’s gone.
Send somebody to the Quik Pak store;
We need some ice and an extension cord,
A can of bean dip and some Diet Rites,
A box of tampons, some Marlboro Lights.

Fran and Rita drove from Harlingen.
I can’t remember how I’m kin to them.
But when they tried to plug their motor home in,
They blew our Christmas lights.

Cousin David knew just what went wrong,
So we all waited out on our front lawn.
He threw a breaker and the lights came on
And we sang, “Silent night, oh silent night, oh holy night.”

Carve the turkey, turn the ballgame on.
Make Bloody Marys ’cause we all want one!
Send somebody to the Stop and Go;
We need some celery and a can of fake snow,
A bag of lemons and some Diet Sprites,
A box of tampons, some Salem Lights.
Hallelujah, everybody say, “Cheese!”
Merry Christmas from the family.

Feliz Navidad!

Stocking stuffers:

Day 8:

No words…

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Interlude 2: Demons of Christmas past, present, and future

The second group of Christmas-disenfranchised people isn’t due to religious beliefs; in fact, it’s not necessarily due to any beliefs at all. Rather, it’s due to various emotional states. I’m well-aware this is an awful time of year for a lot of people, some of whom follow this blog and/or my social media accounts, and therefore have likely been gritting their teeth over the past week’s worth of my posts.

This time of year is bad for those suffering from seasonal affective disorder, depression, loneliness, stress, grief, debt, and other afflictions. If you are one of them, I’m sorry and I’m here for you. Please know you’re not alone. I’ve been where you are, and likely will be again.

The season presents too many demons, triggers, and other hazards. Each of us deals with them in a different way; sometimes I get past the blues by fully embracing the dark side of the season. Apropos of that, the following songs are full of darkness, and I love them. I hope you will, too.

Let’s start off easy, with a song that’s more cynical than flat-out sad. A gang of young toughs beat up a department store Santa, demanding money rather than toys. If you think about it long enough, the sadness will come, but the Kinks present “Father Christmas” in an almost-humorous manner. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

The next two songs tell stories of Irish families destroying Christmas — and each other. Dropkick Murphys sing a song of familial disdain in “The Season’s Upon Us,” and if the lyrics aren’t enough to explain why the narrator hates going home for Christmas, the music video justifies Ken Casey’s words amusingly. The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” however, isn’t funny at all. It spins a tale of the disenchantment and eventual derision between two long-time lovers who met on a Christmas Eve and who’ve been down on their luck for as long as they’ve been together.

Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” tells a story of ex-lovers who run into each other on Christmas Eve, and is a tragically beautiful tale of regret and the one that got away. I both anticipate and dread listening to it every year. I dare you not to get choked up when you do. But keep in mind, there’s a more optimistic way to interpret the ending, where the snow turns into rain — a ten-year-old girl sent him a letter to ask if that meant he felt warm inside from having reconnected with his ex. I’ve always interpreted it to mean nothing of beauty can last, the world sucks, and we can’t have nice things.

At least those two had a relationship, though. The narrator in Dido’s “Christmas Day” has only the promise of one from a passing stranger who professes his love for her and rides off with a vow to return on Christmas. As of the end of the song, he hasn’t fulfilled that vow. She says his it was the last words she ever heard him say, but does that mean she believes he won’t come back? His fate is unknown, as is the status of their relationship. Melancholy, at best.

Lastly, give a listen to Greg Lake’s sublime “I Believe in Father Christmas.” He allegedly wrote it in disgust at the commercialization of the holiday, but I’m pretty sure I detect a more poignantly dark theme. Ultimately, I find it to be about disillusionment and lost innocence. The line “Be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get, we deserve” gets me every time, but I just can’t buy into that sentiment.

Too many people deserve better than they get at this time of year; to them, I’d like to stress Lake’s most optimistic lines from his song:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas;
I wish you a brave new year.
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear. 

Day 7:

White trash Christmas

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The sixth song of Christmas: Percussive reverence

During those dark December evenings playing Christmas songs in the living room with Mom and Nanny, there would come an inevitable moment when a sussurant, steady, chanted beat would begin from the radio’s single speaker. If we’d been talking, we’d stop. I would stare fixedly at one thing while I listened. Sometimes it was be the ceramic nativity scene that my sister Sue had made for Mom over the years, piece by piece. Sometimes it was one of Mom’s decorative container candles, with Christmas scenes printed on the outside in colors translucent enough to reveal the glow within. I’d just stare and listen in reverence.

“Throom, boom, room, boom,” went the men keeping the time, before the women began harmonizing on the lyrics, telling a simple story from the perspective of a humble child. The story wasn’t part of any Scripture, but it imparted a beatific message having to do with unity, love, and giving. It spoke to the need to care for the marginalized, and it felt like it required attentive listening, time after time. This was an essential three minutes of reverence, and at times I would lose all thoughts except that reverence, my consciousness lost in the simple, droning beat. The song exuded spirituality. Those three minutes were transcendent, and every time I hear the song today, I’m immediately taken back across the years, miles, and memories to the warmth of that living room.

When Harry Simeone was under contract for his first Christmas album in the late 1950s, he discovered an obscure song called “Carol of the Drum,” which he re-titled and arranged for the album. It became popular over the next few years, hitting U.S. charts and drawing a following. I know many people who can’t stand listening to it, finding it monotonous and “stupid.” Sure, there are a couple of odd lyrics, but the story is as pure as it gets — an innocent child, possessing nothing, follows three men on faith to give the only thing he can to a baby he believes is there to save him. Yep, the Harry Simeone Chorale’s “The Little Drummer Boy” is nearly perfect. Divine, even.


Come, they told me (pa-rum pum pum pum)
Our newborn King to see (pa-rum pum pum pum).
Our finest gifts we bring (pa-rum pum pum pum)
To lay before the King (pa-rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum)
So to honor Him (pa-rum pum pum pum)
When we come.

Baby Jesus (pa-rum pum pum pum),
I am a poor boy, too (pa-rum pum pum pum).
I have no gift to bring (pa-rum pum pum pum)
That’s fit to give our King (pa-rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum).
Shall I play for you (pa-rum pum pum pum)
On my drum?

Mary nodded (pa-rum pum pum pum).
The Ox and Lamb kept time (pa-rum pum pum pum).
I played my drum for Him (pa-rum pum pum pum).
I played my best for Him (pa-rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum).
Then He smiled at me (pa-rum pum pum pum) —
Me and my drum.

Stocking stuffers:

Interlude 2:

Demons of Christmas past, present, and future.

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The fifth song of Christmas: How the workshop was unionized

One of the many things I love about Barenaked Ladies (please note the uppercase letters; in this instance, it’s a proper noun rather than a common one) is their knack for creating humor in banality, without having to write about banal topics. Rather, they write about unusual or even extraordinary things, but treat them as if they were commonplace. I mean, this is a group that wrote a song from the perspective of a guy receiving scads of anonymous postcards with costumed and propped chimpanzees on them. And about a bank robbery gone awry because the bank was full of nuns, and now the would-be robbers are quarreling about who was to blame. They do this constantly, without seeming formulaic, and it’s hilarious. Plus, their funny songs are musically very good.

Such is the case with “Elf’s Lament,” a rollicking free-for-all of a song from the perspective of Santa’s elves, complaining about their working conditions. It’s a realistic look at a fantastical situation, and not since Hermione Granger founded SPEW has anyone seemed so concerned about the plight of elves.

After its jaunty keyboard-drenched opening — I think of this particular tone as that of a Wurlitzer, but I have no idea if that’s correct — the narrative begins. Ed Robertson, Steven Page, and guest vocalist Michael Bublé alternate verses about progressively worse employment conditions until finally the titular elf lays out his plan for extortion — the music stops momentarily to let Bublé growl (in a vocally pleasing manner, of course) the line, “He may wonder where the toys went.”

Although at one point the elf says there’s no union, I’m certain he succeeded in starting one.

The verses follow an internal rhyme scheme that’s so brilliant it’s not always obvious that a rhyme has occurred, further contributing to the frenetic pace. I tried outlining it and got as far as:


Frankly, I’m not even sure that much is correct, and I didn’t have the energy to attempt the rest of the song. But I broke up the lines in the printed lyrics, just to have as many rhymes as a possible show up at the ends of lines. I’m sure you care.

Anyway, all of this combines to give the song a tone of near-anarchy, leading up to a staccato ending that never fails to leave me wanting more. It’s non-traditional and not really about Christmas so much as it is about the year-long efforts behind Christmas, but I can’t get through the season without listening to it repeatedly. I dare you not to smile as you listen to “Elf’s Lament.”


I’m a man of reason
And they say ’tis the season
To be jolly,
But it’s folly
When you volley
For position.

Never in existence
Has there been such a resistance
To ideas
Meant to free us.
If you could see us,
Then you’d listen.

Toiling through the ages,
Making toys on garnished wages.
There’s no union;
We’re only through when
We outdo
The competition.

I make toys,
But I’ve got aspirations.
Make some noise;
Use your imagination.
Girls and boys,
Before you wish for
What you wish for,
There’s a list for
Who’s been naughty or nice,
But consider the price
To an elf!

A full indentured servitude
Can reflect on one’s attitude,
But that silly red hat
Just makes the fat
Man look outrageous.

Absurd though it may seem,
You know, I’ve heard there’s even been
Illegal doping
And though we’re coping,
I just hope it’s not contagious.

You try to start a movement
And you think you see improvement,
But when thrown into
The moment,
We just don’t seem so courageous.

I make toys,
But I’ve got aspirations.
Make some noise;
Use your imagination.
Girls and boys,
Before you wish for
What you wish for,
There’s a list for
Who’s been naughty or nice,
But consider the price
To an elf!

You look at yourself;
You’re an elf
And the shelf
Is just filled with disappointing memories.

Trends come and go
And your friends wanna know
Why you aren’t just happy
Making crappy
Little gizmos.
Every kid knows they’ll just throw this stuff away.

We’re used to repetition
So we drew up a petition:
We, the undersigned,
Feel undermined;
Let’s redefine “employment.”

We know that we’ve got leverage
So we’ll hand the fat man a beverage
And sit back
While we attack
The utter lack
Of our enjoyment.

It may be tough to swallow
But our threats are far from hollow.
He may thunder
But if he blunders,
He may wonder
Where the toys went.

I make toys,
But I’ve got aspirations.
Make some noise;
Use your imagination.
Girls and boys,
Before you wish for
What you wish for,
There’s a list for
Who’s been naughty or nice,
But consider the price,
Naughty or nice,
But consider the price,
Naughty or nice,
But consider the price
To an elf!

Stocking stuffers:

  • None. There is literally no other Christmas song like this one.

Day 6:

Percussive reverence.

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The fourth song of Christmas: The King’s blues

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Elvis Presley, but he does have a few hits that I enjoy, including several Christmas songs. I’m out of my league trying to write about him, but his particular vocal style — one I think of as growling, snarling, and/or sneering — added a remarkable depth and tone to songs that could otherwise have been fairly boring.

Normally, I can’t stand the song “Blue Christmas,” but he made it far more interesting than anyone else has or can. It borders on laughable, almost reaching the point of self-deprecating parody without quite stepping over. As I understand it, there was even a punny inside joke hidden in the recording — the Jordanaires, his backup group, deliberately sang at either a different pitch or the wrong intervals (told you I don’t know how to write about this), creating what’s known as a “blue note” in their vocals. A blue note, for a blue Christmas.

The song’s amusement quotient served my family well one Christmas, probably more than three decades ago. Some of the other details are hazy, but that song remains indelibly fixed in my memories of that particular Christmas. It was mostly due to my brother George and my sister Shelley; I think maybe George had heard the song while driving over on Christmas Eve, and came into the house singing it. Shelley picked up on the background “oo-oo-oo-oooo” and I jumped right in, along with probably several other siblings.

By Christmas afternoon, we had driven the joke into the ground, but still wouldn’t stop. One sibling would start with an exaggeration of Elvis’ sneering, “I-I’ll have a blue…” and the others would jump in with outrageously falsetto “oo-oo-oo-oooo” responses.

I believe that was the same year Mom gave me one of those dancing flowers with some sort of microphone inside that lets it pick up on ambient noise. Whenever it “heard” something within a foot or two, the flower would jerk around with barely perceptible rhythm in reaction to the noise. The manufacturer’s intent was that the consumer would place the flower in front of a speaker, where it would continuously twitch and spin in reaction to the music, thereby “dancing.”

They were a weird fad that year, one that has been replaced in subsequent years with smaller versions that merely wiggle their leafy “arms” up and down. The original was the best, because it was bigger in size and in the scope of its movements. Whenever someone sang “Blue Christmas” at it, the thing would shudder and lurch as if trying to escape the bad impressions. As a bonus, the boys discovered it would react in horror to the sound of a fart, as well. That made for an interesting Christmas.

By the time we parted ways that year, the song wasn’t funny at all, but I still laugh when I think back on it. Every few years or so, I’d try to get it going again at Christmas, but it just wouldn’t take off. The siblings would just stare at me. Some moments can’t be recreated, fortunately. The flower, I’m sad to say, has gone to that compost heap in the sky. And the farting? Well, some traditions last forever. Makes for a “Blue Christmas,” indeed….


I-I’ll have a Bluuue (oo-oo-oo-oooo) Christmas without you (oo-oo-oo-oooo, oo-oo-oo-oooo).
I’ll be so blue (oo-oo-oo-oooo) just thinking (oo-oo-oo-oooo) about you (oo-oo-oo-oooo, oo-oo-oo-oooo).
Decorations (ahhhh) of red (ahhhh) on a green Christmas tree (ah-ah-ah-ahhh)
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me.

A-and when those bluuue (oo-oo-oo-oooo) snowflakes (oo-oo-oo-oooo) start falling (oo-oo-oo-oooo, oo-oo-oo-oooo),
That’s when those blue (oo-oo-oo-oooo) memories (oo-oo-oo-oooo) sta-art calling (oo-oo-oo-oooo, oo-oo-oo-oooo).

You’ll be doin’ alright, with your Christmas of white,
But I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.

(Copious oooos and ahhhs aligning with the primary melody)

You’ll be doin’ alright, with your Christmas of white,
But I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas (oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oooooo).

Stocking stuffers:

Day 5:

How the workshop was unionized

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Interlude 1: The candles are burning low

When I was very young, one of my older sisters began dating a Jewish boy. I’d never heard of Judaism prior to that, and didn’t learn much about it until I was much older — other than one important detail that rocked my little world. I remember being fascinated when I heard he and his family didn’t celebrate Christmas.

And when I realized there are a lot of people out there who didn’t, including children my age, I felt sad that Santa simply passed over their houses on Christmas Eve. It seemed immensely unfair. Years later, the makers of South Park captured this theme perfectly in their hilariously offensive song, “The Lonely Jew on Christmas.”

I still hate that there are so many people who, for whatever reason, are disenfranchised from the Christmas season. For that reason, I’m adding a couple of interludes to the schedule of “12” songs. This one is for my Jewish friends.

One of my favorite Christmas CDs — and one from which I’ll be referring to many songs in the coming days — is Barenaked Ladies’ Barenaked for the Holidays. The band had collaborated with Sarah McLachlan on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen/We Three Kings” several years before, and I so loved that song that I was ecstatic to learn of an entire CD of seasonal songs from BNL.

I was further delighted upon hearing each of the CD’s three Hanukkah tracks, because they were every bit as festive and/or delightful as everything else on the album. Barenaked Ladies brings not only immense musical talent and perfect vocal harmony to everything they do, but a certain joie de vivre, as well. They know how to make things fun, and they did that with the three Hanukkah songs.

The first one, “Hanukkah Blessings,” is an original, blending whimsy, reverence, and awe in their interpretation of what Hanukkah means. It also blends their own lyrics with a traditional Hebrew blessing, seamlessly integrating it into the song. And the result is sublime.

The next one, several tracks later, covers “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” with enough musical, whirling joy to bring the most steadfast of gentiles to his feet. I listen to it and I picture an epic scene of dancing and celebration, one that demonstrates why Hanukkah is known not just as a “holiday,” but as a “festival.”

Near the end of the CD, they embrace their trademark silliness on “I Have a Little Dreidel.” At first listen, it almost seems a mockery, just as when they sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus in the CD’s hidden final track. But in both, I have faith the band isn’t mocking, but embracing the childlike enthusiasm that’s a part of each song. The joy is still evident, and they are happy to share it with us.

Happy Hanukkah!

Day 4:

The King’s blues…

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