Christmas Wonders

On Christmas Eve, The Mrs. and I were in a small town in Michigan, celebrating with her brother and his family. As night fell, I took charge of the music in the family room and tried to find a radio station to provide background for dinner and the gift exchange. Now, I had in mind what I wanted–something like the music heard in the last scene of A Christmas Story, when Mother and the Old Man are watching the snow fall outside the living room window on Christmas Night after Ralphie and Randy have gone to bed. Or maybe, by some weird atmospheric phenomenon, the very Christmas 1970 broadcast I wrote about before we left for Michigan. (Who knows–maybe it’s been floating in the ether, waiting for the right set of ears to pick it up.) But it’s a radio desert up there, and the pickings were slim. I soon stopped on a station that was playing Nat King Cole and called it good enough.

Except it wasn’t. This particular station resolutely refused to give up the pounding between-records hype so common on pop and country stations nowadays, and I don’t believe they played more than two records in a row without stopping for sponsor greetings. And the music itself was a schizophrenic mix of classic recordings and Christmas cash-ins by contemporary artists, featuring a few staggeringly inappropriate choices. By all that is holy, I swear that it’s wrong to play “Funky New Year” by the Eagles on Christmas Eve.

We lived with it for a while until my sister-in-law couldn’t stand it anymore. “Let’s put on some CDs,” she said. The record that pushed her over the edge was a song by the Beach Boys called “Santa’s Beard”–and if she hadn’t reacted to it first, I would have. I wrote about this tune several years ago (in a piece not available online). It’s so astoundingly bad that it simply cannot be described, and in fact, it may be the single worst thing recorded, not just for Christmas but for any other reason, since Edison invented the phonograph. (If you think you can stand it, you can hear “Santa’s Beard” by clicking this link and scrolling down to find the title; then right-click the title, save it to your computer, and listen.)

The repeated failures of critical taste on the part of record producers, anthologizers, and radio programmers that have allowed “Santa’s Beard” to survive 40 years after it should have been strangled in its crib are a wonder to contemplate. Whoever said no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public wasn’t talking about Christmas music, but he could have been. After all, one of the top Christmas singles of all time is “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs.

If we had stuck with that Michigan station a while longer, I’m sure they would have played it.

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