You’re stuck at work, scrambling to finish all the crap that needs to get done before the end of the year. You’re late for your fifth holiday party this week, which wouldn’t be a big deal if it wasn’t the only one filled with people you actually want to see. Those three sneezes you’ve just sneezed are undoubtedly becoming a full-blown cold. The news is depressing the hell out of you, making that last-minute shopping spree overflow with extra-heavy spiritual bankruptcy. That’s when you hear it, often while breaking for an emergency pee in some Target urinal: the voice of Andy Williams, singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” It feels alien—a strange, dark, taunting force.
Fortunately, the world is full of songs, albeit way less-popular ones, that capture a more representative holiday spirit, the sort experienced by anyone over the age of 10. When “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” start sounding like holly-jolly hokum, reach for Loudon Wainwright III’s “Suddenly It’s Christmas,” about the ever-expanding shopping season. (“Christmas comes but once a year and goes on for two months!”) If that’s too perky for you, try “Christmas Morning,” which works in homelessness and AIDS.
Need a suicidal tear-jerker to take the edge off those upbeat Rudolph and Frosty yarns? The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” the world’s greatest most-pathetic holiday anthem, is about two skid-row drunks ripping each other to shreds as they reminisce over meeting on Christmas Eve. Freedy Johnston’s “Moving on a Holiday” finds its main character packing up, once again, at the end of the year. (“Here comes the first good snow, only to decorate a vacant yard.”) And if those Rankin-Bass cartoons backfire, watch Judy Garland sing “After the Holidays,” on the Tonight Show in 1968. She pleads with a lover to pretend everything’s okay until after New Year’s, “then I can let you go.” Garland died the following June. She’d never see another Christmas.
Current headlines make some songs even tougher on the ears. The whole UVA/Rolling Stone and Bill Cosby rape fracas make the campy come-ons of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (“say what’s in this drink?”) feel anything but flirtatious. Thanks to the Michael Brown/Eric Garner headlines, “White Christmas” sounds more unsettling than ever. Better to break out The Emotions’ “Black Christmas,” which celebrates “a black way of living, soul way of giving” before gleefully declaring “the time is right for a black Christmas!”
Since it’s also the season for drunken inter-office trysts, there’s no realer carol than Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” The premise: George goes to a holiday gathering, avoids the person he hooked up with last year—the one who dumped him in the morning—and promises to give his heart to “someone special” this year. But naturally after too much eggnog, his qualifications for “special” get broader and broader, until he wakes up the next morning, hungover and jilted again. That the song has reappeared for the last 30 years adds a profound layer of despair. Last Christmas is This Christmas is Next Christmas. Georgie, caught in an endless loop, doomed to repeat the same mistake over and over, never learns his lesson.
And a final note: Do us all a favor and stay the hell away from “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” If you want novelty and irreverence, mix it up with De La Soul’s “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” or Sherwin Linton’s “Santa Got a DWI” or, my personal favorite, “I Farted on Santa’s Lap (Now Christmas Is Gonna Stink for Me)” by The Little Stinkers. Blessings and glad tidings to all!