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Celebrate the Season: Our Favorite Holiday Songs

Last night Cindy and I kicked off our holiday season by decorating our tree, baking some treats, and turning the iTunes music library to “Christmas – shuffle.” Many of the songs you’ll find on that playlist we have learned about, and come to love, from our experiences researching, developing, and giving tours in New York. From Mexican hymns to Trinidadian party anthems, we have incorporated many of the diverse sounds, tastes, and traditions found in this city into our own household celebration of the season. Here are just some of our favorites:

“La Guadalupana”

Today is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron of Mexico, and a day that rivals Christmas in importance there. Cindy marked the occasion by arising at 3:45 this morning to attend the “mananitas” – an early morning singing of hymns to the Blessed Virgin – at Most Holy Trinity-St. Mary Church in Williamsburg. On Saturday, that’s where we’ll be holding our Christmas Church Tour, which will explore the traditions of the church’s parishioners, past and present, including the growing Mexican community and their veneration of Guadalupe (get tickets here). I didn’t make it to this morning’s service – I figured that I did my duty back in the fifth grade when I played Juan Diego (the indigenous peasant who witnessed the appearance of Mary in 1531) in a church pageant – but I really regret missing the congregation sing this beautiful hymn.

“Christmas at the Zoo” – Flaming Lips

Don’t you know that animals don’t celebrate Christmas? They have no interest in your yuletide jubilee, and they scoff at your attempts to free them in the name of your so-called savior. They prefer to do things themselves, in deference to their own animal gods. That is, according to the Flaming Lips.

“Don’t Cry, It’s Christmas” – Ricky Gervais

It’s funny that one of our favorite Christmas songs should come from one of the world’s more outspoken atheists. It’s also funny that he created one of the best Very Special Christmas Episodes ever, for his TV show Extras. This is hardly a song that celebrates the season, but rather mocks sentimental holiday songs, by cold-heartedly ridiculing the misfortune of sick children. We love Ricky Gervais – I have literally listened to and watched nearly every piece of recorded footage he has ever been in – but he should be careful playing his “character” of the out-of-touch Hollywood star, lest he become it in real life. If this song isn’t enough of a hilarious bummer, listen to his friend Karl Pilkington’s Christmas morning misfortunes.

“Wii” – Physics Club (listen)

Store parking lot camping and murderous stampedes have become commonplace during the holiday shopping season, but few individuals have captured the zeitgeist of consumerist Christmas better than Thomas Falsetta, a man who stayed awake for five days waiting for the release of the Nintendo Wii back during Christmas 2006. When asked how long he’d been waiting, Falsetta, huddled in a blanket on the sidewalk, said, “I stayed up for five days because I just couldn’t sleep I wanted the Wii so badly, I would do almost anything for it. And, well, I got hopped up on Demerol and grape soda, so that’s what kept me up for five days.” This is perhaps blatant nepotism, but my sister Amanda Gustafson and her part-time band Physics Club memorialized this pivotal moment in the decline of our culture in a Christmas song (Physics Club has three fantastic Christmas albums available for download here).

“Hockey Holidays” – The Zambonis

Whenever I go home for the holidays, I make sure to bring my hockey equipment, hoping I can play some pickup games or pond hockey. Of course, everyone else has this idea too, so the result is overcrowded games played by players filled with holiday angst and way too much aggression for the community rink. This may be totally foreign to most, but the world’s only hockey-themed band, the Zambonis, captures this quintessential puckhead experience perfectly. Take a deep breath, old timer, and keep the elbows down – it’s Christmas.

“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” – The Ramones

It wouldn’t be Christmas in New York without the Ramones.

“Sonny Boy’s Christmas Blues” – Sonny Boy Williamson

There seem to be a lot of songs about heartbreak and disappointment at the holidays on this list. I guess all the songs blared over the radio and in shopping malls are just too upbeat, so we’re trying to change the tone a bit. The holidays are about love and family and giving, but we must admit that there is always a healthy dose of yuletide stress in our lives. I always find that a good blues song lifts me up when I’m down – perhaps it’s commiseration, perhaps it’s schadenfreude. Either way, no matter how much your family drives you crazy, Sonny Boy Williamson had a worse Christmas than you probably ever will.

“Christmastime for the Jews” – Darlene Love

Hannukah is great and all, but really its proximity to Christmas is what brought it to such prominence in the Jewish holiday calendar. In recognition of this fact, American treasure Robert Smigel teamed up with Darlene Love to bring this raucous soul single to Saturday Night Live a few years ago. I think NBA rosters are pretty much set on Christmas, and in my experience, gentiles go to movies then as much as anybody (I can’t comment on the bar fighting, tractor driving, or squirrel surgery), but Chinese food on Christmas is a venerable Jewish tradition. If you want to make it special this year, join our friend Jeff Orlick at Queens Kickshaw for his 2nd annual Woks and Lox Christmas Eve dinner (also, read our favorite story ever about New York City’s Jews and Chinese sharing a meal together, from back in 1903).

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” – Joseph Spence

Why must we always associate Santa Claus with cold and snow? It wasn’t until 1879 that Thomas Nast placed Santa at the North Pole, and the original guy lived in balmy Turkey (hear more about this story on our tour). Yes, warm-weather Santa is much better, and the songs about him are much more interesting, as demonstrated by Bahamian singer and guitarist Joseph Spence. Spence was “discovered” during the folk revival of the 1960’s, and his style influenced many major blues, folk, and rock artists. His rendition of this old standard, punctuated by hums and growls, is just great. Plus, he refers to him as “Sandy Claw,” an iteration of Ol’ Saint Nick found in creole cultures in the Caribbean and the American South, including among the Gullah people of Georgia and South Carolina.

“Piece Ah Pork” – Scrunter

No country loves Christmas more than Trinidad and Tobago, and this list could easily have been made up entirely of their songs. With songs like “Drink a Rum,” “Bring Out De Ham,” and “Eating Meat,” these people clearly know how to celebrate the season. Parang is the type of music played there this time of year, as well as the related Soca (and the hybrid Soca Parang) style – I can’t tell you the exact differences between them, but I can say that Parang is now a fixture in our house, along with a jug of homemade ginger beer, the proper drink for the season in Trinidad.

Enjoy, everyone, and offer your own seasonal favorites in the comments!

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