Ever since the voice of Enrico Caruso was first pressed on a scratchy, one- sided 78 rpm record for Mr. Edison’s new gramophone machine, nearly every musical performer has felt compelled to issue a Christmas album, and the sheer bulk of that music adds up to more than anyone could listen to in a thousand holidays. The big three of the season — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole — remain perennial best sellers, while Elvis Presley’s holiday collections and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s recordings hold their own. But the music stores’ discount bins tumble together Mantovani and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tony Bennett and the Vienna Boys Choir, Paul Revere and the Raiders Sing the Season and The Amazing Zamfi r Plays Carols on His Pan Pipes — together with Christmas anthologies from Muzak, Motown, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Grand Ole Opry.
I once bought a version of a carol — I think it was supposed to be “Good King Wenceslas” — performed on bagpipes, just to hear what it sounded like. Not good, is the answer. By itself, it was enough to make all the Whos down in Whoville cheer that the Grinch stole their Christmas. But most of the traditional songs are traditional for a reason: they’re sturdy enough to stand up to almost anything the yuletide pits against them — Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or a grade- school Christmas recital, or even my own adventures in shower singing. (I pride myself on knowing Christmas carols’ more rarely sung verses — the bit about thorn- infestation in “Joy to the World,” for instance — and one of the nice things about living now in the bigger spaces of South Dakota is that I can get all the way to those grimmer parts of holiday tunes without my wife knocking on the door to say the neighbors are complaining. Again.) Even when my sisters and I were children, the innumerable Christmas renditions would blend together until Don Ho’s ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ is the thing to say / on a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day
sounded just like Nat King Cole’s ‘Buon Natale’ in Italy / means a Merry Christmas to you.
And yet, good or bad, distinct or indistinct, a carol snares me every year and tumbles me down — down into that Christmas world of time turned somehow less ephemeral: weightier, denser, and more real; a world where symbols are not just symbols anymore. One year it was a boy soprano singing “Once in Royal David’s City.” Another year, a melancholy country-western recording of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” rendered in a minor key. Another year, an a cappella version of “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow.”
I can find little similarity in the passing years’ triggers of Christmas, except perhaps that they usually come during the carols’ less- familiar second or third verses, at a line with some explicit Christian piety and heft. Mild, he lays his glory by, / Born that man no more may die, I heard in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” on the car radio as I drove home one Christmas season, and home was newly bathed in that old, familiar light. Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light from “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the carolers sang another year on the steps of a nursing home as I walked by, and it rose, and it rose, and it rose like a torrent. And down in the flood, I was washed away.
Every year, Christmas begins for me with the dance of words, and those words, often enough, arrive first in the lyrics of carols. Late one night when she was four — there in the Christmas season, the evening after her filing cabinet misadventure — I took my daughter in my arms and hummed for her the old, old songs. There is a world where shepherds still keep watch over their flocks by night.
There is a world where oxen still kneel at midnight in their straw. There is a world where Wenceslas still trudges through the winter snow. There is a world, I whispered in her sleepy hair. There is a world where still.
– Joseph Bottum is the author of The Christmas Plains, from which this is excerpted.