Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Christmas Gift for You: Crusty's Ranking of Christmas Songs

You may have noticed, friends, that Crusty has not been all that active the past few months.  There's one major reason for this: we are in such a crisis as a nation that dissecting picayune, insider issues within a particular denomination pales against the assaults against the social safety net, the right of persons to vote, the full equality of LBTQ persons, and so many other issues.  As COD mentioned in a sermon, "I never thought I'd have to reassert Nazis are bad, anti-Semitism is wrong, and I can't believe we need to bring back duck-and-cover drills, but welcome to 2017."  Crusty has little time splitting hairs on issues of importance in a largely insignificant denomination when the world needs Christians to band together with people from other faith traditions and all people of good will on areas of common cause, in the service of the one who told us that we will be judged by how we treat the last, the least, and the lost in our world.  So please excuse Crusty. I've stopped and started a dozen blog posts in the past five months, each time asking, "Does this really matter in 2017? If not, we no longer have that luxury as people of faith."

But hey: it's Christmas, so time for Crusty's CHRISTMAS GIFT TO YOU.  COD, before he was a
There's only one version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"
history and theology snob, was, and is, a music snob, like Jack Black's character in High Fidelity.  Crusty can opine on how Owen Bradley ruined country music, why Aretha Franklin deserves the Nobel Prize, played in a pre-Dropkick Murphys band trying to be the Dropkick Murphys before there were Dropkick Murphys -- and so on.

So, as part of this Christmas Gift For You, COD offers his definitive top 4 Christmas Songs of all time.  Crusty was going to pick top 3, but couldn't choose only three, so chose four,  since it's Advent, it's in keeping with honoring Mary as co-Meditatrix of Salvation and expanding the Trinity into the Holy Foursome (though, if you're a Lutheran, drop Mary and add Luther).  And by Christmas songs, Crusty is not talking about traditional songs -- no Sinatra or Josh Groban crooning standards -- but originally written Christmas songs of the post-1954 rock-and-roll era.

Here they are, in order of chronological release:

"Father Christmas," by the Kinks (1977)
Remember the kids who got nothing.

One of the few socially conscious Christmas songs, exposing the veneer of commerciality and consumption -- this is a Christmas song for Thatcherite times, just pre-Margaret Thatcher; a song railing against the 1% before we called them the 1%. In this song, the Kinks sing about a group of kids who rob a department store Santa for his money because they have nothing.

The narrator begins by acknowledging times have changed since his youth:

When I was small I believed in Santa Claus/Though I knew it was my dad
And I would hang up my stocking at Christmas/Open my presents and I'd be glad

 The narrator, likely growing up in the 1960s during the shaking off of the post-World War II deprivations and economic expansion, had it pretty good.  He then notes the difference between his childhood and the current reality:

But the last time I played Father Christmas/I stood outside a department store
A gang of kids came over and mugged me/And knocked my reindeer to the floor

They said: Father Christmas, give us some money/Don't mess around with those silly toys
We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over/We want your bread so don't make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys

This reflects a Britain that suffered under the 1973 recession, imposed caps on wage increase and limiting of collective bargaining in the mid-1970s, and was about to careen towards the "winter of discontent" in 1978-1979 with widespread civil unrest and labor strikes in response to the economic situation.  Hey, if you'd just listened to The Kinks, you would've known this was all coming.

In a world where Father Christmas favors the rich, the disadvantaged want money, because, well, they need it.  Later, in a plaintive call, the kids who rob Santa reveal their true wishes:

But give my daddy a job 'cause he needs one
He's got lots of mouths to feed

The final coda breaks the fourth wall and addresses those listening to the song, reminding all of us privileged enough to have hi-fi stereos (hey, it came out in 1977):

Have yourself a merry merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin'
While you're drinkin' down your wine
If only Christmas carols, rather than descending into insipid Victorian sentimentality (looking at you, Away in a Manger and Once in Royal David's City) managed to retain as much of the raw essence of the Magnificat, and the way in which God becoming human is meant to overturn the conventions of our world, cast down the mighty, and bring comfort to the poor, as the Kinks managed to do in this song.

"A Fairytale of New York," the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl (1987)

One of the major issues with Christmas is the way it has become some kind of idealized, often largely secularized, projection of how people wish the world could be a certain way despite the fact it is regularly and routinely not that way: wishing for peace in a world torn with strife, briefly taking time:
I want to have been in the room when this photo was taken.
to think about others before returning to self-absorbtion, and so on.  The Pogues, growing up in Ireland but spending significant time in London, were also operating within the particularly UK-specific fondness for Christmas songs that perpetuate this fantasy.  The UK loves Christmas songs, they climb high on the pop charts in a way they don't in the US.  The Pogues explode the cheap sentimentality of whole genre (I'm looking at you,Paul McCartney, in the opening lines of the song:

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me,
Won't see another one

The first time Crusty heard this in 1990 he thought: OMFG this is a Christmas song?  Someone in the drunk tank, rolling over, hearing an old man confess, half to his cellmate, half to God, half to himself, that this might be his last one before the disease which has ravaged his life claims him?

Crusty kept replaying that opening piano riff and opening couplet again and again and again when he first heard this.  The Pogues were telling The Cloying UK Christmas Song To PISS OFF.

Then...then...Crusty needs to take a moment...OK I'm back...they pair Shane MacGowan's growl with the soaring voice of Kirsty MacColl, taken from us too soon in a tragic boating accident for which, to this day, no one has ever been held accountable in her death.

The middle portion is the story of a relationship's rise, fall, and a looking back, in three acts / verses.   If you don't get goosebumps when Kirsty sings, "They've got cars big as bars, they've got rivers of gold/But the wind goes right through you, it's no place for the old/ When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas Eve, you promised me Broadway was waiting for me," you are dead inside.  Shane then joins in as they sing together, to a crescendo of "Sinatra was swinging, all the drunks they were singing/ We kissed on the corner then danced through the night/ The boys of the NYPD choir were singing 'Galway Bay', and the bells are ringing out for Christmas day."

But this is no "Wonderful Christmastime", no idealized celebration of life and love: everything crashes down in the next verse, the bitterness and anger of the breakup culminating in Kirsty snarling,  "Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it's our last."

What makes this Christmas song so incredible is that it is so real.  No one had ever dared to write a Christmas song which makes our sorrows, our disappointments, and our regrets part of the Christmas experience.  There's an attempt at reconciliation in the final verse:  When Shane mewls "I could've been someone," Kirsty stops this self-pity in its tracks, "Well so could anyone: you took my dreams from me."  Finally, broken down, and, as I've always thought, imagining all of this conversation in in his own head lying in the drunk tank as some kind of DT-tremor hallucination, Shane confesses, "Can't make it all alone/ I've built my dreams around you."  This is one of the most fully realized and fully authentic representation of what it means to have love and lost, especially someone struggling with addiction (he is in the drunk tank on Christmas Eve), let alone set within the context of a Christmas song.

The Pogues are precisely the ones to tell us our sorrows do not disappear magically at the Christmas season: oftentimes, they are actually magnified and brought to mind, and if we can't try to come to grips with them, they can destroy us.  And this clearly has struck a chord, since, despite telling the Sentimental Christmas Song to bugger off, this single regularly and repeatedly charts in the UK every Christmas season and is now quite likely the most popular Christmas song of all time in the UK.

"Christmas in Hollis," Run-DMC (1987)

It opens with Run talking about bumping into Santa sitting on a park bench in Hollis, Queens, where Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay grew up, thereby proudly and openly proclaiming and claiming that BLACK FOLK LOVE CHRISTMAS
AND SANTA LOVES BLACK FOLK.  There's a long history of African American artists covering songs written by others (the greatest of which is the Drifters' version of "White Christmas"), and notable original Christmas songs by African Americans include Teddy and Akim's "Santa Claus is a Black Man," and James Brown's "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto."  But, in general, in both music and much of popular artistic renderings, ever since A Christmas Carol kind of kicked off the modern cultural celebrations of Christmas, #ChristmasSoWhite would have been trending had ever since had there been twitter. Good God, a few years ago we had Megan Kelly calmly and assertively claim Santa is white: "I mean, Jesus was a white man too. He was a historical figure, that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa — I just want the kids watching to know that.”

This song also comes at an important cultural moment.  Rap was moving into the mainstream in the 1980s, and Run-DMC were largely (but not solely) the ones who did it.  At the same time, the 1980s continued the cultural demonization  of African American as criminals and drug dealers, and institutionalized this with mandatory sentencing laws that were passed that unfairly targeted African Americans and created the mass incarceration prison industrial complex.  As Melle Mel put it in his seminal rap single "White Lines": "A street kid gets arrested, gonna do some time/He got out three years from now just to commit more crime/ A businessman is caught with 24 kilos, he's out on bail, and out of jail and that's the way it goes."

Run-DMC paints a picture of decent, honest Africans Americans who celebrate Christmas with family and try to do what is right, in contrast to the rampant stereotypes of African Americans permeating the culture.  Run spots Santa on a bench, Santa drops his wallet, and then disappears. Run picks it up and finds it full of money -- nearly a million dollars!  But he immediately says, "But I'd never steal from Santa, cause that ain't right/ So I'm going home to mail it back to him that night." And his honesty is rewarded: "But when I got home I bugged, cause under the tree/ Was a letter from Santa and all the dough was for me!"

After exploding the trope of rapper as proud criminal, and instead making it about doing what is right, in the face of a broader culture that marginalized African Americans, the second half of the
You ever go over a friend's house to eat/ and the food just ain't no good?
song comes from DMC, and is just as proud.  Rather than presuming the Norman Rockwell painting of white people in ties eating the traditional dinner, DMC claims his own African American Christmas traditions:

"It's Christmas time in Hollis Queens/Mom's cooking chicken and collard greens
Rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese/ And Santa put gifts under Christmas trees."

Thanks to Run-DMC (and the massive airplay the accompanying music video got on MTV at the time) Christmas, you're not so white anymore.  All I want for Christmas is for someone to be held accountable for Jam Master Jay's untimely and still unsolved murder from 2002.

"The Christians and The Pagans," Dar Williams (1996)

 It tells the story of a same-sex, non-Christian, Wiccan, pagan couple stopping by to see one of their uncle’s while in town celebrating solstice and celebrate Christmas with him and his family. Like all good Christmas songs, it sets the stage in the first lines: “Amber called her uncle, said we’re up here
Dar back at Wes. Couldn't play MoCon b/c they tore it down!
for the holidays; Jane and I are having solstice, now we need a place to stay.” Her uncle tries to talk them out of it: “I know our life is not your style,” he says, before she protests, “Christmas is like Solstice, we miss you, and it’s been a while.”  Like with Run-DMC, context is important here.  An unspoken tension in this song is whether the uncle's hesitation to have his niece come is because she's a pagan or because she's gay. This song came out in 1996, when same sex marriage seemed an impossibility, and to have a song about a same sex non-Christian couple sharing Christmas with their straight-laced, Christian relatives was a little more radical.  Crusty was active in ministry in 1996, he was a CPE chaplain doing a year-long residency who spent a lot of time with gay men dying from HIV-AIDS, often rejected and deserted by their families rather than welcomed to Christmas dinner.  COD preached at his first celebration of a same sex commitment ceremony in 1996, was warned by his sponsoring rector that if word got out it might damage my ordination process.  Crusty only brings up all of this so that we remember how much our contexts have changed.  Just like Run-DMC burst the bubble of #ChristmaSoWhite, Dar helps burst the bubble of #ChristmasSoStraight.

So they all get together, the Christians and the Pagans, and sit down to dinner.

I love this Christmas song not just because it has genuinely hilarious and touching moments, nor because I went to college with Dar Williams, the singer, and we're only two years apart; not because Dar was a religion major and by virtue of being a successgful recording artist is quite likely one of the most successful religion majors Wesleyan University has produced. Not for any of those reasons, as true as they all are. I love this song because I actually think it reflects some central aspects of what God is intending in the story of Jesus’ birth.  

In Luke's gospel, the night Jesus is born an angel appears to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks and tells them, “Do not be afraid; I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” The words that have always stood out for me in this are “all people.” Everyone. You could translate it poetically as “the entirety of humanity,” or “every single person.”

Sure, Christians believe God becoming human in Jesus Christ has particular significance for Christians.  But the angels didn’t say this was for all believers, didn’t say this was for all whom God chooses, the angels say it is good news for everybody. Everybody.  What does that mean?  Do we ever think about what there is in Christmas which transcends the doctrinal ways in which Christians claim and name it?

This is why Dar Williams’ song is one of my favorites: because like the angel, she tells us that Christmas is not only or solely something for Christians but it for all people in a sense. In another verse, her Christian cousin asks her, “Is it true that you’re a witch?” The reply, from her cousin's partner (there was no same sex marriage in 1996) is that, “"We love trees, we love the snow, the friends we have, the world we share, / And you find magic from your God, and we find magic everywhere." COD has no problem if people find magic everywhere.

Dar even includes an actual, real, tangible way in which people can stop wringing their hands about how the world isn't the way it should be at Christmas, and shows us how we can try to live into those things we claim to celebrate at Christmastime.  Dar later sings, "When Amber tried to do the dishes, her aunt said, Really, no, don't bother,/Amber's uncle saw how Amber looked like Tim and like her father. /He thought about his brother, how they hadn't spoken in a year, /He thought he'd call him up and say, It's Christmas, and your daughter's here."  Whether there's some kind of rift in the family, or perhaps just the busy-ness of life, this visit from these non-Christians prompts Amber's uncle to reach out to that brother he hasn't spoken to in a year.  So this song makes Christmas a little less straight, challenges Christians to live into what it means for Christmas to be good news to "all people," and shows us what we can actually do to try to mend the brokenness in our world.

She concludes by singing, “So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table, /Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able, /Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and /Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold.”  Though, given all that has happened in 2017, Crusty is less sanguine about Dar's claim that "Now when Christians sit with pagans only pumpkin pies are burning."

Well, friends, this is enough Christmas sermon avoidance for Crusty, time to get back to it, as much as I'd like to just read this blog as my Christmas sermon.  Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year's, all.