For me, nothing feels more festive, more Christmasy than the carols that blare from my car radio. At a time when the holiday has become sickeningly commercial, when the reason for the season is about catching a good deal on Amazon, Yuletide songs remain the sincerest expression of good cheer and goodwill.
Which, I admit, is setting a pretty low standard. After all, most of my favorite carols have no particular religious message nor do they recount, in lyric or harmony, the birth of a Jewish baby who would change the landscape of religion and the history of the world. (In comparison, Silicon Valley’s tech bros are rank amateurs in disrupting society.)
Christmas should be about much more than music, of course; about more than office parties and wrapping paper and Santa Claus. Certainly the holiday should carry more heft than a catchy little tune. Still, the first notes of “Jingle Bell” or “Joy to the World” — or any other holiday song — work their magic on me almost instantaneously. It’s like pushing the Be Merry button in my heart. I don’t need the privacy of the shower to give my lungs a workout.
Nor, for that matter, do I need to be able to carry a tune. Tone deaf and melody-challenged folks like me can break out in song without fear of reprisal. People won’t cover their ears or tell you to stuff it. My experience has been one of acceptance and, with enough eggnog, resigned enjoyment on the part of the people I’m serenading. In fact, I see more kindness (or is it pity?) in the faces of my audience than I do at the parking lot in Dadeland Mall.
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Some Christmas carols, the tried and true and the sacred, have been translated into lots of languages. I happen to know many in both Spanish and English, a remnant of a bifurcated childhood when my home life was spent hablando así while my public persona tiptoed tongue-tied into the foreign. I think of bilingualism as doubling the joy of a good song.
Christmas carols have incredible staying power, more so than any other kind of music. The religious ones hark back centuries, while others are pop melodies that have rocketed up the charts more recently. Here’s another thing I like about them: They definitely qualify as earworms, but they don’t overstay their welcome. They visit every year, serve as background at parties, family gatherings and school presentations, and then dutifully disappear until the following season — which is more than you can say about some relatives.
Like everyone else, I’ve got my favorites. “The Little Drummer Boy” gives me goosebumps when sung by Bing Crosby and David Bowie, and I get nostalgic with “Away in a Manger” because it was the first carol I attempted on the piano a few eons ago. But when it comes to toe-tapping, sheer singability, “Mi Burrito Sabanero” (also known as “El Camino de Belén”) tops all of them. Wish there were an English version of that Latin American villancico.
Most everything related to Christmas has somehow been co-opted by some money-hungry Scrooge, and carols are no exception. I recently read that a British sex toy company released a new set of vibrating patterns for its couple’s vibrator, and these include “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night” and “Rudolph the “Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Really? Really! For hours after I read this story, I felt disappointed, angry and … well, yucky enough to want to take a shower.
But let’s forget about that. Let’s forget, too, about North Korea, Russia, spiraling healthcare premiums, the proposed tax giveaway to the wealthy, dysfunction in Washington and our own very personal heartaches. I’m popping my late mother’s ‘Andy Williams’ Christmas Album’ into the car’s CD. I’m turning up the volume and turning down the gloom and doom. I’m going to sing myself happy.
Hum along with me, why don’t you.