My most dreaded moments of each year from 1996 through 1999 were the mornings I had to start playing holiday music over the speakers of the record store where I was employed. Before getting this job I had never thought much about Christmas tunes, but once I became a teenager I experienced a confluence of tiny coming-of-age horrors—responsibility, employment, gift-buying—and December became my official month of melancholy. It’s seasonal depression, helped along by the bad roads, biting winds and early sunsets (having lived my entire life in a northern climate, you’d think I’d be used to these phenomena by now—but I’m not). Christmas music has only ever compounded this misery.
There are Christmas albums and songs that do not make me cringe. Greg Cartwright of the Reigning Sound once sang, “If Christmas can’t bring you home, nothing could,” and when Cartwright says something in his bleeding, hangdog voice it feels as if he ripped it out of his soul. The Walkmen’s “Christmas Party” is a fine tribute to vintage Christmas albums of yore. The Pogues crafted a Christmas carol out of the experience of being in a drunk tank. Bing Crosby and David Bowie collaborated on “The Little Drummer Boy.” Mojo Nixon released an entire album of Christmas songs that featured Tom Waits impersonations, gallons of rum and sleigh bells. Dean Martin drank his way through a holiday album or two. Phil Spector even produced the shit out of one.
While they might not make me cringe, however, I still don’t want to listen to any of them. Maybe I’ll catch some odd Christmas carryover some time in June and pine for those frosty nights spent in front of the fire, knitting sweaters for my labradoodle—but not right now. Once November ends and those old familiar songs start pumping through the speakers at the liquor store, I’m immune. I blame this entirely on my history of retail work where acid jazz Christmas compilations, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and current pop-music notables were forced upon my still-developing ears. The third year into my tenure at the music store, I told a co-worker that that Christmas would be my last. I said the same thing to him in my fourth year. By the fifth year, I’d made good.
Contrary to popular myth, Christmas does not bring out the nice side of people. There’s always the one gift everyone has to have and there’s never enough of it go around. The parking lots are crowded. Tempers flare as the day draws nigh. Retail clerks, deprived of both shopping and family time, begin to lose their cool when confronted with that strange sense of entitlement Christmas shoppers inevitably exhibit. And through it all some asshole on the speakers is singing about Frosty the Snowman.
When the A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965, it was rife with product placements for Coke. Today, Starbucks releases holiday albums that are available only in their stores. Christmas is wedded to commercialism, but of course this is nothing new. The Friday after Thanksgiving in the US has come to be known as “Black Friday” because of the onslaught of shoppers searching for sales. Online retailers are trying to push the following Monday as a new shopping watermark called “Cyber Monday,” the idea being that shoppers who don’t have access to their computers over the weekend, once safely ensconced at work, can knock off a few items on their shopping lists. Having worked in retail, that’s what Christmas music means to me: manipulative.
I’ve been free of the retail shackles for a number of years now, but the other night I wandered into a store and heard Dean Martin warbling his way through, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” This song was always an oasis: Dean tries to talk a girl into staying over because it’s too cold out—you know what he has in mind and you know that the girl is cool with it. I always thought there was something honest about this tune, especially the way Dean sang it. Christmas is a season unto itself, and it can be a downer for everyone—even if you don’t celebrate it, you’re stuck with it. Thank the advertising dinks on Madison Avenue for that—some jerk with a lifetime subscription to Details magazine sells their soul to think up catchy new ways to sell flavoured vodka and we all have to pay the price.
I guess what I’m saying is, don’t be assholes to each other this holiday season. The music being piped in over the speakers isn’t really something anyone wants to be listening to. Too much Christmas music will make you psychotic: save it for the parties or the gatherings. It’s played in stores and on TV to fool you into believing in the season. Think of Dean Martin—sure, he just wanted to sell a few records, but I think he really did want to get laid as well.
Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind the sofa. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.