Politics & Policy

Sounds of the Season

Christmas music -- the good, bad, and ugly.

Tis the season to hear a whole lot of Christmas music. National Review Online asked a group of music lovers to jazz up some variation of the following two sentences: “No Christmas is complete without BLANK playing in the background.” And “When BLANK is playing, I RUN.”

Here’s what James Bowman, Dawn Eden, Bridget Johnson, Mark Joseph, S. T. Karnick, Dan LeRoy, Michael Long, Frederica Mathewes-Green, John J. Miller, Jay Nordlinger, Mark Steyn, and Terry Teachout came up with.

James Bowman

No Christmas is complete without The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, from King’s College, Cambridge playing in the background. That’s partly because I remember going to the service at King’s or listening to it on the radio for many years in England and always being moved by the combination of the solemn story of salvation and the indescribably sweet sound of boy trebles and male voices that is the hallmark of English choral music. It’s partly, too, because when I was a teacher I both sang in the choir and drilled the readers when my school had its own lessons and carols concert every Christmas. The Chaplain was a liberal churchman and used to ask me every year to have the readers use one of the modern translations of the Bible. I always insisted that if he wanted me to coach them it would have to be in the Authorized or King James Version. That was one tiny victory for the forces of reaction.

When jazzed up carols or those with a rock beat like Mannheim Steamroller’s are playing, I run. Hasn’t the devil got enough of his own tunes — not without reason known as the best – without colonizing those of pious and penitent Christians? This is the music of sex and self-indulgence, which are all very well in their place, but their place isn’t — or shouldn’t be — Christmas. To hear such stuff is a continual reminder of how hard it is to preserve not only any sense of the sacred in our public spaces but even any sense that the sacred should be allowed to exist there.

 James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Dawn Eden

No Christmas season is complete without hearing Handel’s Messiah in a church and Stan Freberg’s “Green Chri$tma$” and “St. George and the Dragonet” on the radio.

 Dawn Eden is an editor at the New York Daily News, blogger, and author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.

Bridget Johnson

No Christmas is complete without Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song“ playing in the background. Granted, I’m Catholic, but should some nice Jewish family ever choose to adopt me I will be really prepared.

When Carpenters Christmas tunes are playing, I RUN. Possibly all the way to Saudi Arabia, where Carpenters Christmas songs are probably rightfully banned by Islamic law, and someone could get a hand chopped off for playing them.

 Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She blogs at GOP Vixen.

Mark Joseph

No Christmas is complete without “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” playing in the background.

When “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” — that awful John Lennon/Yoko Ono song is playing, I RUN.

 – Mark Joseph is producer of The Passion of The Christ rock soundtrack and author of Faith, God & Rock ‘n’ Roll.

S. T. Karnick

(1) Any of Bing Crosby’s Christmas albums.

(2) A Brutal Christmas — The Season in Chaos.

I enjoy Advent immensely, and I like a wide variety of Christmas music. Many people find some of it corny, and there is a good deal of purely commercial and obviously uninspired Christmas music out there. But I’ll take the bad with the good, for the most part, and on the whole I think it’s a great thing that there’s so much Christmas music to choose from. This year I’d like to recommend in particular What I Really Want for Christmas, by Brian Wilson. Like its creator, the former leader of the Beach Boys, it’s cheerful, musically sophisticated, heartfelt, and beautiful. I’m listening to it as I write these words, and all I can say is, Merry Christmas indeed!

  S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and director of publications and senior editor at the Heartland Institute.

Dan LeRoy

No Christmas is complete without The Junky’s Christmas, by William S. Burroughs, playing in the background — even though it causes my wife to shake her head grimly, my kids to cry, and other family members to start spiking their eggnog. Fifteen minutes of recitation by the late Beat bard will do that to most folks, but it’s one of his great stories, told over scratchy Christmas carol records, and kinda moving. Or at least, it usually makes people move — out of the room, or maybe the house.

When A Cheetah-Licious Christmas is playing, I RUN. I can’t help remembering two-thirds of the G-rated Cheetah Girls back when they were 3LW, and released their own R-rated Christmas album. The song where they whined about their gifts and closed by screaming, “Everything is crap, everything is crap, everything is crap. I hate you!” is still priceless seasonal fare. Imagining the face of some Disney exec listening to that tune always gives me a little extra holiday cheer.

  Dan LeRoy is a freelance writer from Connecticut whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Vibe.


No Christmas is complete without Guitar Hero for PS2 playing in the background—I have never cared about video games as an adult until this… this… motorized air guitar thing came along. Now I’m hooked. (I’m getting an extra guitar-controller for Christmas.)

When any Christmas recording less than 30 years old is playing, I RUN.

 – Michael Long is director of the White House Writers Group.

Frederica Mathewes-Green

No Christmas is complete without “Once in Royal David’s City” playing in the background.

When “Little Drummer Boy” is playing, I RUN.

 Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.

John J. Miller

No Christmas is complete without rock music playing in the background. Seven favorite songs: “Christmas All Over Again,” by Tom Petty; “The Christmas Song,” by the Raveonettes; “Winter Wonderland,” by Liz Phair; “Do You Hear What I Hear,” by Third Day; “We Three Kings,” by Fuel; “Silent Night,” by the Sixpence None the Richer; “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” by Barenaked Ladies (honorable mention: Jars of Clay).

When “Run, Rudolph Run” by Chuck Berry is playing, I run — and turn up the volume.

 –John J. Miller is NR’s national political reporter and author of“Rockin’ the Right: The 50 greatest conservative rock songs.”

Jay Nordlinger

No Christmas is complete without hearing Leontyne Price sing “O Holy Night” (on this album).

What do I run away from? Frankly, I’m amazed at the greatness of Christmas music, in all its variety, from medieval chant to the Chipmunks — and beyond! I run away from nothing.

 Jay Nordlinger is NR’s managing editor and a music critic.

Mark Steyn

I did a Christmas Eve radio show for many years and still like to dust off the old favorites starting every November 27th or so — actually, more like August 3rd. On my seasonal sleigh list, I’m wont to warm up with “We Wish You The Merriest” by Bing and Frank with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, or Ray Anthony’s “Christmas Trumpets.” I love almost any Christmas song by Gene Autry, but “Where Did My Snowman Go?” is especially fine. Dean Martin’s “A Marshmallow World“ is a lot more psychedelic than “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” Suzy Bogguss’s “Mister Santa,” the seasonal rewrite of “Mister Sandman,” delightfully rhymes “scrubbed our toesies” and “used a hanky when we’ve blown our nosies.” “Il Est Ne, Le Divin Enfant” is the great francophone contribution to the repertoire, but I like the Chieftains’ Celtic take on it with the McGarrigle Sisters. My Vermont neighbor Elisabeth von Trapp (granddaughter of Baron von Trapp and Sister Maria) has a lovely ethereal version of Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Johnny Marks’ marvelous setting of Longfellow’s “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day” is given a truly glorious treatment by Harry Belafonte. It’s the only Belafonte record beautiful enough to almost make me forget what a vile and contemptible little twerp he is these days. Almost. Oh, and if you’re on the bearskin rug and want to get the eggnog boiling I recommend Julie London’s “I’d Like You For Christmas.”

On the other hand, when almost any 20th-century British Christmas song other than “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is playing, I’m with the Taliban music-wise. “Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney is worse than “Silly Love Songs,” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John and Yoko is almost as bad as “Imagine.” A couple of years ago somebody was urging me to get an all-star record going protesting the House of Saud’s suppression of Christmas but all I could think of was a rewrite of “Happy Xmas”: “Saudis diss Christmas, and what have you done?” Barbra Streisand’s Christmas Album, where everything is either too fast or too slow, is a low point. That said, there’s a very bad version of “The Christmas Song” by some Eighties pop star that I heard once and would love to hear again. His phrasing is hilarious: he sings “Everybody knows a turkey.” Which is certainly true by the end of the record.

 Mark Steyn is a columnist for National Review and author of America Alone: The End Of The World As We Know It

Terry Teachout

No Christmas is complete without Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas playing in the background.

When “Little Drummer Boy” is playing, I RUN (or at least change the channel violently).

 – Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary.


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