It’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north.
Those lyrics, which send happy little thrills up my spine when I look at them in the wee hours of Christmas Eve 2011, are from one of the most famous songs ever written, a song that’s probably second only to the Beatles’ “Yesterday” in the number of versions that have been recorded. If you don’t recognize the words, it’s because the songwriter removed them from the song’s most famous recording. The songwriter was Irving Berlin, the song is “White Christmas,” and I bet you’ve heard it at least a dozen times in the last week, if only on the sound system at your local Wal-Mart.
Actually, the full, original opening to “White Christmas” goes like this:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north
Those lyrics, which Berlin removed from the song for the Bing Crosby version and which have rarely been recorded since, mean a lot to me, and for more than one reason. The first is that I live in western Los Angeles, two miles from Venice Beach and less than ten miles from Beverly Hills, L.A. I didn’t grow up here, though. I grew up (and spent most of my life) in the Washington, DC, area, where we really did get snow this time of year.
The second reason is that I’m a Christmas music freak.
Yes, I’m that guy who starts listening to Christmas music shortly after Labor Day and is still searching the radio dial on January 2nd hoping to catch Nat King Cole singing about roasted chestnuts. When I was 13 I wore out the grooves on the Andy Williams Christmas Album (we still had vinyl recordings then) and I still listen to it on my iPod. I have Christmas music streaming through my iPod Touch and into my clock radio even as I type this. (At the moment Johnny Mathis is singing “Caroling, Caroling/Happy Holidays” on the Sirius/XM Holiday Traditions channel.) But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Christmas-loving atheist that I am, what I want to talk about is secular Christmas music.
I don’t really know when secular Christmas music was invented. Maybe it was when people started writing self-referential songs like “Caroling, Caroling” instead of songs about babes in mangers. Maybe it dates back to the years BC, when the season we now call Christmas was a pagan holiday celebrating the end of the sun’s long drift toward the southern horizon. All I know is that secular Christmas music, by which I mean Christmas music that has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, is what makes it possible for me to love Christmas music despite my total lack of religious belief.
My apologies to those of you who prefer hearing Mariah Carey and/or Justin Bieber sing “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but the secular Christmas music I love was mostly written in the 1940s through the 1960s, by songwriters like Berlin, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”), Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (“The Christmas Song”), Ralph Blane and Hal Martin (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (“Silver Bells”). I adore “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” by Meredith Willson, especially when it’s sung in counterpoint with “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” (also by Willson). I turn into a grinning fool when I hear “Carol of the Bells” (which actually dates back to 1904 and was written by Russian composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, but was converted into an English-language carol in 1947). With the possible exception of that last one, these songs all belong to the tradition of the American Popular Song and have the gorgeous melodic precision of the best mid-20th-century Tin Pan Alley songwriters. They were also the songs that I heard my parents playing when I was a wide-eyed child who still believed in Santa Claus, back in the days when I could stare at the lights on the Christmas tree for hours. (I don’t believe in Santa any more, but I still love to stare at those lights.)
Since secular Christmas music has no specific subject matter to address, either pagan or Christian, it tends to be about the collateral elements of the season: presents under the tree, carolers in the snow, getting home for the holidays, and of course Santa and his reindeer. But once I ceased being that wide-eyed child (to the extent that I ever did cease being that wide-eyed child), I realized it was mostly about either sex or the weather. Much of it is about both.
Let’s review: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (Frank Loesser) is an obvious case, and one of the greatest comic duets ever written. It’s about a man trying to seduce a woman and a woman trying to seduce herself, with a little encouragement from the weather. (“Never such a blizzard before!”) “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” isn’t as funny, but it’s almost the same song: “Since we’ve no place to go/Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” “Winter Wonderland” is considerably subtler (“He’ll say are you married/We’ll say, no, man/But you can do the job when you’re in town”), but “Santa Baby” just does away with the weather part altogether. Conversely, “White Christmas” does away with the sex and is just about weather.
Sex (or, to be less crass about it, romance) just became more and more popular as a subject for secular Christmas music when the Tin Pan Alley era ended. Karen Carpenter sang about it beautifully in “Merry Christmas, Darling” and, yes, for you Mariah Carey and/or Justin Bieber fans, it’s also what “All I Want for Christmas is You” is about.
But sex and/or the weather isn’t really what secular Christmas music is about to this yuletide-loving atheist. Christmas, for me, is an excuse to listen to music that would be much too corny and sentimental for me in any other context. It’s a chance to hear music that carries a message that breaks right through all the cynicism I’d normally be tempted to throw at it. When Sinatra sings “It’s that time of year when the world falls in love” (“The Christmas Waltz” by Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne), he isn’t singing about either sex or the weather, and he makes me believe that, for this one brief moment in time, the world really is in love. Sappy, sentimental love.
And if it isn’t, I’d rather you didn’t tell me until at least the 26th of December.