By the time December 25 rolls around, I've been subjected to over a month of giant inflatable lawn decorations, 24-hour holiday music radio stations, and awful Lexus commercials (honestly, how fucking rich do you have to be if your first reaction upon learning that your spouse has spent $30,000 on your Christmas present is anything but "How the hell could you spend that much money without letting me know about it?"); it's almost enough to make me want to march down to my local ACLU and enlist in the War on Christmas. Still, I always seem to get into the spirit of the season at the last minute. On that note, here is a list of my favorite pieces of seasonally appropriate pop culture ephemera:
A Charlie Brown Christmas - I tried to watch the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special earlier this year, but I couldn't make it through more than a few minutes before I turned it off. The animation was too smooth, the voice acting too professional, and the Vince Guaraldi score too much a product of the era. If only reminded me what a huge gap exists between the great original Christmas special and all of the other Peanuts animated specials (with the exception of the very good It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown). The soundtrack is nearly flawless (probably the only Christmas album I'd gladly listen on in August), but the raggedness of the rest of the show is most of its charm. Many lines of dialogue are obviously edited together from multiple takes with the child actors, the animation is frequently stiff (do any of those kids know more than two dance moves?), and why does Linus seem to have the whole Bible memorized? The special is a lot like the ratty tree that Charlie Brown picks out; it's hardly flashy but thanks to a little love, it's close to perfect.
Patton Oswalt's "Christmas Memory" - "The Chipmunk Song" is possibly the most irritating thing ever recorded, partly because whenever I am forced to hear it, I reflexively sing "I still want a hula hoop" in a bad falsetto. On his album "Feelin' Kinda Patton," Patton Oswalt has a hilarious bit about the terrifying sound of a chipmunks album played back extremely slowly.
The Pogues - Fairytale of New York
I was first drawn to this song because of it seemed to be the polar opposite of every other Christmas song, from its Celtic sound to its seedy setting to its brutal lines like, "You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot / Happy Christmas my arse / I pray God it's our last." But, strangely, by the time the instrumental coda fades out, it's achieved the sort of genuine uplift associated with the best holiday music.
(For another look at Christmas behind bars, check out "Christmas in Prison" by John Prine, covered here by the Mountain Goats.)
Other Non-Canonical Christmas Songs - Perhaps I'm just a contrarian, but I have a soft spot for songs that avoid the nostalgia of most holiday songs (have you ever been on an actual sleigh ride? Or seen someone peddling chestnuts roasted on an open fire?). So forget talking snowmen or winter wonderlands; I'd rather hear about violent, disaffected youth, finding Santa's wallet in a park, and the secret that the Man's been covering up for centuries.
The Strangest Christmas Duet Ever - Man, don't you hate it when you're about to sit down to a nice family dinner when your cousin Ziggy, the androgynous glam rocker from Mars, shows up uninvited and proceeds to harass your guests? Maybe you can try asking him to sings some Christmas carols with Grandpa; that might keep him occupied for a little while.
Pottersville! - It's a Wonderful Life is, of course, the quintessential Christmas movie, even though Christmas is only incidental to the plot. I have little interest in the interminable set-up, though, in which the audience is forced to relive all of Jimmy Stewart's wonderful, tedious life, and the big finale is just too pat for my tastes (despite what you may have heard, I do not get choked up every time I watch the closing scene . . . or overhear it when the movie is playing in another room . . . or merely think about it). For my money, the best part of the movie is when George Bailey visits the nightmarish alternate-reality of Pottersville. So many great lines are packed into this section of the film. Most of them come from Nick, the tough-talking bartender who, suspicious of Clarence the Angel's girly drink choice, threatens, "Hey look, mister - we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint 'atmosphere'. Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?" When Clarence commits another faux pas, it's Nick's time to shine: "That's it. Out you two pixies go, through the door or out the window!" I am eternally hopeful that someday I will be able to work that line into a conversation, as I have spent the past several years perfecting my Nick impression. Another hilarious line comes after George asks where he could find his wife. But the George-less universe has not been kind to poor Mary, and Clarence tries to avoid revealing the awful answer until finally he blurts out that she is . . . closing up the library! And he says it in the same horrified tone of voice that you or I might use to say, "She's turning tricks down at the shipyard to buy cheap heroin!" or "She's kidnapping infants to sell on the black market!" And on top of it all is the fact that Pottersville seems like a much cooler town than boring ol' Bedford Falls. I mean, it's a shame about George Bailey never being born and all, but isn't that a small price to pay for a happening nightlife, wisecracking bartenders, and the lovely Donna Reed working at the library?
Christmas at the Zoo
Wayne Coyne seems to be a big fan of Christmas, as evidenced by the dancing Santas that join the Flaming Lips onstage or his long-in-production film Christmas on Mars (which apparently is finished and scheduled to premiere at South by Southwest next year? Cool!). Musically, there's this song from Clouds Taste Metallic, which tells the story of someone who decides to spend Christmas Eve liberating zoo animals, but the animals tell him they're not especially interested in liberation. This being a Flaming Lips song, psychedelic drugs may have been involved.
Awful Christmas Specials - Earlier this month, I downloaded a copy of the Star Wars Holiday Special, but I still haven't watched it. This is partly out of fear that it can't possibly measure up to its so-bad-it's-good reputation. How bad is it supposed to be? So bad that George Lucas refused to allow it to be aired more than once or released on video (and this is the same George Lucas who had not problem with releasing Episodes I, II, or III). In the same vein, I'd love to get a copy of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, the last of the Rankin & Bass stop-motion specials, which features Santa kicking ass against a bunch of Tolkeinesque monsters.
Six to Eight Black Men - David Sedaris has enough great Christmas essays that he could fill a book with them (and he has). My favorite, though, is "Six to Eight Black Men," an examination of the foreign holiday traditions that seem bizarre to Americans. For the full effect, be sure to listen to the essay read in Sedaris's inimitable voice.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) & 2000 Miles
No smartass commentary here, I'm afraid; just two fairly mainstream, contempoarary Christmas songs that I really love.