This article originally ran on December 22, 2006.
‘Tis the weekend before Christmas, and something like a hundred million Americans are heading to a place called home. They still call it that, though they’ve lived far away for years, and have created new branches of the family they grew up in. This trip into the past may be pleasant or painful. But for most people, whether or not they are practicing Christians, the soundtrack of that wayback machine is Christmas music: the religious and secular tunes, the novelty songs and ballads. Grandma has spun these standards for a half century or more, replacing the 78s with LPs, then cassettes and now CDs. The formats change; the songs and feelings don’t. Sometime in the next few days, you’ll hear Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas,” and shed a tear or grit your teeth.
Young people, reared in the current Rude Era of pop culture, might be miffed at having to endure, on the home field of their elders, the one time of year that celebrates family and sentiment. Deal with it, kids. These fogies put you through school and probably put up with a lot more. The least you can do is keep your eyes from rolling when a senior citizen plays the Andy Williams Christmas album (or turns the channel to It’s a Wonderful Life).
You might even learn something. For aside from the cinnamon and schmaltz that infuse many carols, the great American Christmas songbook affords young people their most sustained exposure to the vocal skills of the early to mid 20th century. I speak of pitch, clarity, enunciation, the artfully natural wedding of lyric and melody, intellect and emotion — what used to be called singing. Ignore the lofty, dewy texts of these songs, if you want, and attend to the care the singers invest in the succession of notes, the chain of aural imagery. You might ask: Where has this been all my life?
And if you don’t, fear not, your ordeal will be over soon.
What follows are notes on a dozen familiar Christmas albums, most of them traditional, all chosen from the collection of a married couple very like the people who are about to force this music on you. These CDs play while the harder-working, more creative member of the pair decks the halls, the bedroom, the bathroom and the lobby. For Mary, it’s a sacred mission that takes weeks. And while she dresses the tree, I listen again to the renditions of these songs — which from time to time have made me cringe — and marvel at their emotive and staying power. The albums are listed in chronological order of their original release.
1. Bing Crosby, Merry Christmas, 1954
Bing pretty much invented the Christmas music industry. He’d been hosting Christmas specials on radio since 1936. Then in 1942 he introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” in the film Holiday Inn. Tapping into the nostalgia that GIs at war felt for their first Christmas away from home (as did another Bing hit, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”), the song stayed at #1 on the hit parade for seven weeks. Reissued each year thereafter, it topped the charts again in 1945 and 1946, and was in the top 15 eight other years. In the mid-’40s Crosby recorded eight Christmas songs issued in an “album” of four 78 rpm discs, and that was the basis for this 12-song LP, which has never gone out of print. Bing does a little globetrotting here, adding songs with Irish and Hawaiian settings, but it’s basically that warm Crosby baritone, equally adept at solemnity (a robust “Adeste Fidelis”) and swingin’ (the vamps of “Jing—jing—jing—jingle bells” that he swaps with the Andrews Sisters). Among holiday LPs, this is the all-time champ.
2. Gene Autry, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics, 1956
Crosby had “White Christmas,” but the singing cowboy from Tioga, Texas, scored three huge Christmas hits in three years: “Here Comes Santa Claus” (#9 in 1947), “Rudolph” (#1 in 1949) and “Frosty the Snowman” (#7 in 1950). These were part of the Christmas novelty-song trend, which included “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” (Johnny Marks, who wrote “Rudolph,” rode another trend in 1957 with the not-very-rockin’ “Jingle Bell Rock.”) This album, reissued in 2000, lassos together all of Autry’s seasonal singles.
3. Nat King Cole, The Magic of Christmas, 1950s
The first black artist with his own network TV show, Cole was a jazz pianist whose voice was too lyrical and intimate to be shut up. He put that silky, highly palatized tenor to splendid use in this collection, which was everybody’s second Christmas album. (You couldn’t play Bing all the time.) Like Crosby, Cole mixed the religious and the secular songs, his vocals lending a silky cohesion to the enterprise. Best remembered is “The Christmas Song,” by Robert Allen and Mel Torme, which Nat first recorded in 1946 and made his own. He had us at “chestnuts.”
4. Elvis Presley, Blue Christmas, 1957
What kind of Christmas album would rock ‘n roll’s first superstar make? Well, the opening track, a Leiber-Stoller R&B number called “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” sounded a declaration of war against the Christmas—music tradition. As Elvis growled and screamed it: “Hang up your pretty stockin’s / Turn off de light / Santa Claus is comin’ / Down the old chimney tonight.” Sexually explicit enough for ya? The title track — which lyrically is just another song about being alone or lonely on a holiday that’s meant to reunite loved ones — was sung as a cry of sexual deprivation. Elvis’ “White Christmas” borrows heavily from the 1954 doo—wop version by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters; but most of the other renditions are not so extreme. He does an excellent, committed “Silent Night,” with careful intonations that his Tupelo elocution teacher would’ve been proud of (a soft hammering of those final t’s). And “Here Comes Santa Claus” shows how much the crooner in Elvis owed to Crosby.
5. Johnny Mathis, Merry Christmas, 1958
“Johnny, you’re the king of Christmas,” Bette Midler tells him on Mathis’ latest collection, Gold: 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration, before they lend their still-expert chops to a medley of “Winter Wonderland” and “Let It Snow.” At 71, Johnny is certainly the season’s most consistent troubadour, having done Christmas albums in 1958, 1963, 1969, 1986 and 1993. Stick with the first, which matches Mathis’ clear, confident tenor to a familiar batch of seasonals. A camp highlight is “Sleigh Ride,” in which Johnny unleashes a falsetto, tres gay “Yoooo HOO!” The numbers get lush, warming orchestral support from the man whose very name embodies the propriety and piety of Christmas: Percy Faith.