The short order cook and I had been singing for a while before I noticed the grimace on the cashier’s face. We were harmonizing on “Silver Bells,” the classic Bing Crosby version, and cared little how we sounded as I was the only customer in the diner.
“What’ll we do when it’s not Christmas any more?” the short order cook said as I pulled out my wallet to pay the bill.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but it looks like Mr. Grinch here can’t wait for it to be over.”
“You got that right,” said the cashier. “I hate these Christmas songs.”
Hate Christmas songs? Hate your mother, hate your grandmother, hate your husband, hate Salvation Army bell ringers, but hate Christmas songs?
It has come to my knowledge late in life, way out here in the middle distance, that Christmas song haters are everywhere among us, grimacing at every impromptu sing-along, frantically switching radio stations, cursing the Muzak at the grocery store while the rest of us merrily hum along to tunes as familiar to us as our own voices.
These songs are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we know the lyrics to even the most inane of them, those that make absolutely no sense. Last weekend I went to a Christmas sing-along at a local coffee shop and watched as a room full of people of diverse ages, professions, denominations and backgrounds sang along to “Up on the House Top” and didn’t miss a beat on the stanza about filling the stocking of little Will: Give him a hammer and lots of tacks/ Also a ball and a whip that cracks.
They knew all the verses to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and swung their mugs in unison as they sang: O bring us some figgy pudding/ Bring us some figgy pudding/ O bring us some figgy pudding/ And bring it right here.
Maybe the haters would stop hating Christmas songs if they knew the backgrounds of some of them, that “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” for example, dates back to the 16th century when carolers in the West of England serenaded wealthy land owners who lauded them with treats. And if they didn’t, then they got another verse:
We won’t go until we get some/ We won’t go until we get some/ We won’t go until we get some/ So bring it right here.
Kind of pre-dates and foreshadows the whole capitalistic Christmas gluttony thing.
But seriously, I’m not talking about carols about Baby Jesus that probably should be reserved for religious gatherings among like-minded believers. I’m talking about the popular songs that provide the musical soundtrack of our nation from the day after Thanksgiving until December 25.
They’re silly and funny and sweet and sad and sentimental and catchy and commercial and utterly unforgettable. I dare you to say “Silver Bells” and not hear the melody ringing in your head. Now what if I told you that the guys who wrote it first called it “Tinkle Bells,” until one of their wives told them that tinkle frequently refers to a bodily function not normally associated with Christmas celebrations, especially among little kids. Would you like it a little better then?
A lot of the hating stems from awful versions of perfectly good songs. The next time someone tells you they hate “Jingle Bells,” tell them they can hate the Barbra Streisand recording of “Jingle Bells,” but don’t hate every child’s favorite fantasy song. When will those poor kids ever have a ride in a one-horse open sleigh except through the image conjured by this jolly tune?
The song that has been playing over and over in my head in recent weeks is also the most frequently recorded by everyone from Bob Dylan to Alvin and the Chipmunks, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” (The version sung by the Partridge Family appeared on their album, A Partridge Family Christmas Card, the best-selling Christmas album of 1971 according to Billboard magazine, great ammunition for haters everywhere.)
Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, the song has morphed over 70 years from a sad song to a more cheerful and hopeful one, but it has maintained a tinge of melancholy that even haters can’t hate. It reminds us that in spite of our troubles and the distances between ourselves and those we love, real and imagined, we’ll all “muddle through somehow.”
Just remember, after next week it’ll be over and you won’t have to suffer through another Christmas song for twelve whole months. Until then, have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.