What makes a good Christmas song? My thoughts on the classics

Ah, the classic Christmas songs. You hear them playing from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas. You hear them everywhere, from Walgreens to Wendy’s to Whole Foods. You can’t get away from them.

My niece Melissa claims that there are no good Christmas songs. I know what she means. The good songs, the classics, are so overdone that all the life has been sucked out of them.

A good Christmas song–or any song, for that matter–has emotion. The singer puts her heart into it, literally, and the listener connects with that emotion. Take away that feeling, and you’re left with another bland rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” recorded because it’s a “classic” and it will sell.

Can you tell I have a problem with that song? “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (or HYAMLC, which may or may not be pronounced hiya-milk) is considered a classic. It’s also one of the most overdone. I’ve been listening to a lot of Christmas music lately, and this song has been recorded by everyone: Amy Grant, Tori Amos, Lady Antebellum, Patti LuPone, Frank Sinatra, Jessica Simpson, Diana Krall, Michael Bolton, the Jackson 5, Kermit the Frog, Twisted Sister, you name an artist, and he’s got a recording of this song. Sirius could set up a HYAMLC channel.

Maybe once, back when you first heard it, HYAMLC had meaning, or stirred some emotion in you. But after hearing it fifty million times, it just gets old.

I have a great idea–let’s ban all the classic Christmas songs for about ten years, then bring them back. Think how great it would be to listen to the lyric hang a shining star upon the highest bough when it sounds fresh and new. In ten years.

Of course that’s not going to happen, so we’ll have to muddle through somehow. But it’s the reason why I’m not including the overdone classics in my list of the best Christmas songs. Sorry everyone, but my list has no white Christmas or chestnuts roasting or Frosty or Rudolph.

But just to show you that I’m not completely heartless, here is the exception to my own rule. James Taylor. He recorded “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” on a whim, while in the studio working on another project. Then 9/11 happened, and the song resonated with everyone who heard it. (You can read about it on the NPR website.) The recording is simple, unadorned, plaintive.

After I wrote this, I heard Judy Garland‘s version on the radio. So okay, now there are two exceptions! Because her’s is the original, and the best. Enjoy.

Next post: my list of best Christmas songs.


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