Tis the Season and Whatnot


Excerpts from a project I don't actually have time for, but wish I did.

You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

The webcomic XKCD once slyly pointed out that radio airplay of Christmas songs amounts to an extended nostalgia project for baby boomers, with the top twenty songs clustered neatly around the 1950s and 1960s. “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is not among those top twenty, but is clearly part of the same trend, coming from the 1966 How The Grinch Stole Christmas television special.

It is difficult to account for its status in the Christmas canon on any grounds other than sheer nostalgia. Its only connection to Christmas is appearing in a holiday special. The lyrics don’t mention the holiday at all, instead just insulting the Grinch for six verses

Indeed, lyrically, the song seems almost anti-Christmas. It is a character piece meant to establish the main character of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, when the entire point of the character is that he’s missing the holiday spirit entirely. But his overall character arc over the course of the special isn’t contained in the song.

More to the point, the overall point of the special is in many ways a split decision. Yes, the Grinch makes nice at the end, but the point of the special isn’t the eventual reconciliation, it’s the giddy thrill of the Grinch trying to steal Christmas. The special asks us to revel in perversity with the thin justification that order is restored eventually.

And this carries through to the song. On the one hand, the song is a description of the villainous Grinch and his awful ways. But as much as the song condemns the Grinch, its pleasure is clearly in the perverse excesses of its invective. One central joke of the song is the way in which the final line steadily increases in size, from “you’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel,” which fits the actual musical phrase, up to “I wouldn’t touch you with with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole,” which humorously crams too many syllables into one note, all the way up to “your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled up in tangled up knots,” a description in which there are simply too many adjectives. (“Mangled up in,” in particular, exists only to sustain the phrase a little bit longer.)

This excess is, of course, quintessentially Seussian. But what is striking is not just the excess but the way in which it is overtly contrary to the supposed sense of the season. But the story of the redeemed curmudgeon has obvious history in Christmas - most obviously with Ebeneezer Scrooge. And while these stories are ostensibly about their main character’s redemption, they also show an important carnivalesque inversion of the usual order of things. Their presence deflates the gaudy artifice of Christmas.

The truth is, nobody in their right minds doesn’t want to punch the Whos in the face around the third “Dahoo Dores,” cloying little snots that they are. The Grinch becomes the vehicle in which a counter-narrative to the enforced and hollow artifice of Christmas can be explored. For all that the song belongs to the baby boomer nostalgia that chokes the life out of the holiday, it’s also the needed tonic - the vehicle by which we all get our needed “bah humbugs” out.

The only proper version, of course, is the original Thurl Ravenscroft vocal (from the soundtrack, not the special itself, although both are glorious). His thundering bass relishes every syllable of the song, belting out the final lines of each verses with all the reckless glee they require.

Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!

"Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!," is a 1945 piece that is firmly from the XKCD-noted "baby boomer Christmas nostalgia" block. While there certainly are some appalling pieces of dreck shoved into the Christmas canon due to this sort of nostalgia (I’m looking at you, "Jingle Bell Rock"), it also has some songs of fairly solid pedigree, and it must be said, "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" is among them.

The place to begin, I suppose, is the triple repetition of the title. “Let it Snow!” would be sufficient by any means - nobody, in casual conversation goes for the triple title. But there it is, complete with exclamation points. There’s a frenzied excess to this - a case of protesting too much. The overreach makes it difficult or impossible to read this as a straightforward paean to winter weather. There’s a sort of mania to it that makes it about more than just the weather.

In truth “Let it Snow!” (let’s go for simplicity) is the stablemate of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” written a year earlier. Both feature romantic couples facing inclimate weather and a decision about going home. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is, of course, the single worst Christmas song ever recorded, being as it’s a vivid depiction of a sexual predator (named as “wolf” in the lyrics) browbeating and seemingly drugging a non-consenting woman (named as “mouse”) into staying the night.

But “Let it Snow!” addresses the same basic subject matter with relative panache. The perspective of whomever’s home the couple is staying at is eliminated, with the song being a single-vocalist number from the perspective of the person deliberating over leaving. The singer thus has all the agency in the song, and is thus allowed to engage in a flirtatious give-and-take without the looming threat of sexual violence.

And the lyrics are, indeed, a give and take. On the one hand, the singer seems to suggest departure - they are “still goodbying,” and speak of how they will in fact “go out in the storm.” And yet their behavior suggests otherwise - they’ve brought supplies for popping corn, and while they may be goodbying, the goodbyes are clearly stretching out too long. The song is, in other words, looking for excuses to stay.

The excuse settled on is, of course, the weather. And thus the triple repetition of the title makes sense - a desperate plea for it to snow enough to provide an excuse for the singer to stay, and the singer drawing out the visit in the hopes that the snow will finally pile up sufficiently that they cannot possibly get home.

So the song is engaging in a coy flirtation, nudging towards spending the night and the sexytimes that entails, but deferring it out onto the weather. This requires a delicate balance of delivery, however. Many performances, the Vaughn Monroe original included, end up with a flat, declarative tone that obscures the give and take of the lyrics.

Other skilled singers run aground in different directions - Frank Sinatra attacks the song with too much fervor, all confident charm, such that he revels in the snow. Doris Day, on the other hand, slows the song down so much that there’s no room for the quiet sexiness - the song folds in on itself, reveling in its own beauty and losing the interaction with the unheard host. Dean Martin keeps it more under control, with a lightly teasing tone in his vocals that captures the flirtation perfectly.

But in the end, the song begs for a female vocalist. For my money, Lena Horne hits all the right notes. As a politically active African American singer already blacklisted in Hollywood, she could take a swagger in the delivery that rivals that of Sinatra’s version. But where Sinatra’s version is a clunking boast of a man who knows he’s getting lucky tonight, Horne’s version is something altogether more satisfying. There’s a playfulness to her swagger that makes it clear that everyone is aware of the game being played. The periodic explosions of brass lean into the giddy excess of the title line. And the foregrounding of female sexuality makes it the polar opposite of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

There are very few sexy Christmas songs that even rise to mediocrity. But this is one of the proper good ones: a cheeky celebration of winter seductions. I admit to personal fondness for this - on our third date, the Woman came over to my house to watch Sherlock, which she’d never seen. Her spending the night was not a surprise, but a snowstorm left her stuck the next night as well, and this, combined with the idiosyncrasies of her schedule, led to her basically moving in. Let it snow indeed.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

The only widely recognized advent song, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a piece of haunting anticipation. The chorus, with its exaction to rejoice, sits in marked contrast to the state of affairs described in the verses. Israel “mourns in lonely exile,” labor under “gloomy clouds of night,” and are on “the path to misery.” And yet the promised joy is entirely anticipatory - the only cause for rejoice offered is that Emmanuel will at some future point come.

The listener, in other words, is caught in a strange double bind. The song makes clear the misery of the present condition, and yet demands that we rejoice not because of the alleviation of suffering but because this suffering will at some nebulous future point be lifted.

Textually, the song descends from 6th-8th century antiphons called the O Antiphons, used in the last seven days of Advent. Each antiphon invokes Christ under a different name, stressing different aspects of his being.

The O Antiphons have a tightly wound structure, proceeding in order, O Sapienta, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David, O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, and O Emannuel. The first letters in reverse spell ERO CRAS, translating to “Tomorrow, I will be there,” a clever bit of mirroring that is lost in the popular hymn, which moves O Emmanuel (the antiphon for December 23rd) to the first position, and sings an out-of-order selection of the others.

The standard progresion is Emmanuel, Oriens, and Clavis Davidica. That’s what’s used in the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers version on Songs of Angels - probably the best of the straight choral renditions - and on the Peter, Paul, and Mary version, which features Noel Paul Stookey accompanied by a choir. This latter version is a surprising treat, Stookey’s voice catching and trembling at the lyrics, soaring ecstatically on the “rejoices” while faltering in the verses. Few versions go further than that.

The lyrics used for the hymn date to the 12th century, and were originally a more rhythmic setting of the Latin text. This results in profound differences. The antiphons lack the strange call to rejoicing, and, indeed, do not focus particularly on present day suffering. Of the seven O Antiphons, only two, O Clavis David and O Oriens, focus on present misery, each using the phrase “tenebris, et umbra mortis,” or, in English, darkness and the shadow of death.

Beyond that, the rhythmic resetting dramatically alters the tone of the antiphons. The translation, O Emmanuel, for instance, goes from a fairly neutral text translating roughly “O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour, come and save us, O Lord our God” to the bleak tone of abandonment struck by the initial verse.

This ambivalence of tone is fitting for a song drawn so heavily from the Book of Isaiah. A prophetic work, Isaiah describes the coming of the Messiah in largely militaristic terms, as a political revolution that will undo the tyranny of foreign rule, initially from an Assyrian monarch, and, in the latter portion of the book, from a Babylonian one. Upon the restoration of Judaic control of Jerusalem Yaweh will rule the world, and Jerusalem will be the seat of his power.

There is an obvious complication in reading Christmas in terms of Isaiah, then, which is that the Christian view of Christ as the Messiah leaves the bulk of these political promises unresolved and, more to the point, several millennia out of date. Within Christian theology the bulk of these become eschatological promises to be fulfilled in the Second Coming.

So when, in the 19th Century, John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin offered an English translation of “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” and set to music a few years later by Thomas Helmore, who appropriated a 15th French processional for the purpose, the resulting song was one of yearning for remote objects.

It is worth, at this juncture, considering the state of Advent in the first place. From a Christian perspective in which Christ has been born, died, and been resurrected, what is anticipated is not an event but the commemoration of an event. Christmas does not itself change the theological state of the world. Emmanuel’s arrival does not come at the end of Advent. Which is fitting, as what is yearned for is the resolution to long dead political conflicts, framed in angry prophecy. Emmanuel, as written, cannot possibly come, as the world to which he is invoked is long since dead and buried.

The song, then, demands that we rejoice in the eventual arrival of something that at once cannot possibly arrived and has already arrived. The possibility of joy is, in other words, wholly absent from the song, leaving only the moment of suffering. And yet in that suffering comes a profound beauty. The song moves along in a minor key that breaks into the major key’s resolution at key moments - “Emmanuel” itself, in the first line, resolves from a D to a G, and the chorus begins with the G major, as opposed to the Em of the verse. Even as the song is contained in the minor key opening and finish.

And so in a song that is concerned with an impossible arrival from outside its confines the only moments of joy come from within the captive, mourning, and exiled world itself. This is advent - a period of anticipation not of some external force but of an internal state to be achieved.

Loreena McKennitt’s setting of the song, from her album A Midwinter’s Night Dream, is particularly moving. She reverts to the Latin lyrics, increasing the austere remove at which the listener is situated with regards to the promised arrival. In the absence of intelligible phrases we get only the music’s haunting tremors of hope in amidst the minor key gloom. Underneath the surface she goes one verse extra, adding the verse derived from O Adonai, which does not sing of present gloom but of “ancient times” in which the Lord existed “in cloud, and majesty, and awe,” a perfect representation of the gorgeous distance of the song’s promised beauty. As the song calls for the coming of what has already happened, we are left in the cold present, reaching the spots of warmth that we have.


Nick Smale 7 years, 1 month ago

with the top twenty songs clustered neatly around the 1950s and 1960s

In the UK on the other hand it's mostly 1970s and 80s -- Band Aid, Slade, Jona Lewis "Stop the Cavalry", "Fairytail of New York", John Lennon "War is Over", "A Spaceman Came Travelling", Wham's "Last Christmas"...

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Daibhid C 7 years, 1 month ago

Nick is correct (although he forgot Wizzard). While I'm familiar with the three songs you examine, I've actually never heard a version of Jingle Bell Rock that wasn't by the Muppets (and, therefore, awesome by definition).

Talking of the Muppets, they did a version of "It's Cold Outside" with Miss Piggy as the "wolf" and Rudolf Nureyev as the "mouse". I believe that the film it appears in has a reprise with reversed-genders as well, but ICBW.

You mention that the lyrics to "You're A Mean One, Mr Grinch" doesn't ,mention Christmas, but I'd add that neither does "Let it Snow", which belongs to a group of songs (including Jingle Bells, Jingle Bell Rock and Winter Wonderland) which seem to be classified as Christmas songs on the grounds that they mention snow, and Christmas is the only time it ever snows in popular culture.

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prandeamus 7 years, 1 month ago

Oh I don't know. We get quite a few chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and all that. But yes, Slade and Wizzard and the rest dominate the shops.

For the record, "Last Christmas" by Wham just makes me want to gouge my eyes out, just for the way the word "special" is "sung".

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Daibhid C 7 years, 1 month ago

The American standards do seem to be becoming more common over here, as is the way in all things.

I was very surprised in the High Street recently to hear a version of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" without comedy asides by the late Mel Smith. It just doesn't sound right.

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Bennett 7 years, 1 month ago

The association between snow and Christmas seems to be getting stronger. For the first time, the organisers of our local Carols by Candlelight event saw the need to hire a snow machine - a strange concession considering that we are approaching midsummer with temperatures beginning to break 40°C.

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Jack Graham 7 years, 1 month ago

The most beautiful version of Veni Veni Emmanuel that I know of is on the third album of Christmas music recorded by Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort (usually known as The Carol Album). A wonderful album. In fact, listening to it is about the only thing about Christmas that I look forward to.

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BerserkRL 7 years, 1 month ago

it’s a vivid depiction of a sexual predator (named as “wolf” in the lyrics) browbeating and seemingly drugging a non-consenting woman (named as “mouse”) into staying the night

Where are you getting those lyrics? I've never seen/heard a version that mentions "wolf" or "mouse."

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Toby Brown 7 years, 1 month ago

The original score marks the two singers as Wolf and Mouse as opposed to Him and Her or something. It's not something that comes up in the song itself, but the predatory implications certainly affect how a lot of people listen to the lyrics.

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Seeing_I 7 years, 1 month ago

On the recent Lady GaGa & The Muppets Thanksgiving Special (don't judge me!!!) GaGa sang "Baby It's Cold Outside" with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as her little mouse. JoGoLev never fails to impress, and I was surprised they left the "one cigarette more" line intact.

But that's neither new nor revolutionary - the question of which partner is the wolf or the mouse was always up in the air. it was originally a private piece to be sung for friends at parties, and I've read that Mr. & Mrs. Loesser routinely swapped roles. Then was sung by closet-case Rock Hudson and fag hag extraordinaire Mae West, and made its movie debut in matching gender-swapped versions. So the idea that there's something really predatory about it just never washed for me (nor did the idea that the drink was anything other than a nice strong one).

That said, I never much liked the song anyway - it's just too cute and coy for my taste. Though I like a lot of Loesser's other work.

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Josiah Rowe 7 years, 1 month ago

Daibhid is correct that there's nothing intrinsically Christmassy about "Let It Snow". There's no reason that it (or "Winter Wonderland", or "Jingle Bells") shouldn't be played in February. But for some reason that never happens...

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Cleofis 7 years, 1 month ago

"This ambivalence of tone is fitting for a song drawn so heavily from the Book of Isaiah. A prophetic work, Isaiah describes the coming of the Messiah in largely militaristic terms, as a political revolution that will undo the tyranny of foreign rule, initially from an Assyrian monarch, and, in the latter portion of the book, from a Babylonian one. Upon the restoration of Judaic control of Jerusalem Yaweh will rule the world, and Jerusalem will be the seat of his power."

Also worth noting here is that the aspect of God revealed to/spoken of in Isaiah is, in particular, God as agent of social justice and material social progress. This was always my favorite Christmas song for good reason, it seems :)

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brownstudy 7 years, 1 month ago

I agree that there are some overprogrammed songs, but there are likely reasons other than nostalgia. This Atlantic article, which mounts a not terribly forceful rebuke to the xkcd comic, argues that these songs date from a songwriting and song-distribution period that doesn't exist in today's splintered media market: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/12/why-the-christmas-song-canon-has-a-baby-boomer-bias/250344/

Myself, I prefer the Seegers' American Folk Songs for Christmas, Putumayo-ish world music collections, and John Rutter's choral arrangements over pop Christmas songs. But the Vince Guraldi soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas gets a pass every year, along with Booker T and the MGs' Christmas album. And and and...

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Julian 7 years, 1 month ago

I have little to say, so I'll just throw this in here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiSn2JuDQSc

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Matthew Blanchette 7 years, 1 month ago

...rather ironic, that the inveterate Marxist favors an opiate hymn of the masses. ;-)

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Matthew Blanchette 7 years, 1 month ago

Doesn't that take all the fun out of it, though? What's the point of having Mel Smith ruin an enjoyable song with his "antics"? :-S

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Ross 7 years, 1 month ago

I literally just wrote a very long post on another blog about this. The gist of it is "It's not a vivid depiction of a sexual predator browbeating and drugging a non-consenting woman. It's something else that is slightly less terrible. But only if you sing it exactly right; otherwise it's The Christmas Date Rape Song."

(To wit, it's a game, where the mouse wants to stay but is culturally obliged to pretend to not be a being with sexual desires to satisfy "the neighbors", "mom and dad", etc., and the wolf is providing cover while the mouse resists only up to the point where the social obligation of being able to "say that I tried" is met.)

ObDoctorWho: Baby It's time to Regenerate

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Bennett 7 years, 1 month ago

Nice, though I was expecting this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7oZH2UMJFo

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Wm Keith 7 years, 1 month ago

I recommend:

"Once as I remember" - Gardiner / Montiverdi choir
- fabulous erudite yet moving selection, perfectly sung


"Carols from the Old and New Worlds, Vol.1 " Hillier / Theater of Voices
- which I recommend for the shape note American folk carols. Though it's a bit too pretty for real fans of down-and-dirty Sacred Harp singing.

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