Christmas Songbook Day 10: “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Thurl Ravenscroft

Alternate title for this post: “Sympathy for the Grinch (Hoo, hoo)”

Let’s be honest: Grinches aren’t always born; sometimes they’re made.

In college, I used to say that this was one of my favorite Christmas songs. I think that was just my 20-year-old edginess coming to the fore. I did always enjoy the Grinch TV special, though. But this year, as I heard this track while driving somewhere, I was struck with an alarming realization.

The song’s lyrics are bitingly cruel, such that anyone on the receiving end of such a barrage is almost assured to turn to villainy.

Consider what the Grinch is called by the narrator during this theme: a mean one, a heel, cuddly as a cactus, charming as an eel, bad banana (with a greasy black peel), monster, heartless, brain full of spiders, soul of garlic, untouchable, foul, ugly termite-ridden smile, disposition of a sea-sick crocodile but less desirable, rotter, king of sinful sots, dead/rotten heart, disgusting and poisonous, foul, nasty, stinky, gunk in the soul, stink-stank-stunk.

The Grinch is laid low by this litany BEFORE HE DOES ANYTHING BAD in the special. When we first see him, the Grinch isn’t harming anyone. He’s just an introvert, a somewhat-cynical hermit, living with a devoted and (by all appearances) well-cared-for pet. He just wants to be left alone. But the Whos fill the valley with their noise-noise-noise, and the sad, lonely, unwanted Grinch finally snaps.

I would propose, dear reader, that while the Grinch is clearly guilty of B/E and burglary, he is not a violent offender but rather the victim of a constant barrage of emotional mistreatment by both his thoughtless neighbors and a heartless narrator who seeks to prejudice the opinion of the TV special’s audience with an opening song that is not just well-poisoning but outright slanderous.

We assume that the Grinch is all these things that the narrator describes because we are conditioned to trust the omnipresent, all-knowing baritone voice in our heads telling us what the characters are thinking.

But can we trust this narrator? Hmm? More importantly, SHOULD we?

These are the hard questions we need to ask, friends.

In the meantime, I have just one final statement: JUSTICE FOR THE GRINCH! DOWN WITH NARRATIVE TYRANNY!

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Nevertheless, Sixpence None the Richer’s version of this track is a banger, so here ya go:

Christmas Songbook Day 9: “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey

The OG version. Keep your Biebers away from this song.

Yep, we’re doing this.

So I’m pretty sure I remember exactly where I was when I first heard this song. It was November/December 1994. I was sleeping over at a friend’s house. In the morning, over breakfast, I listened to his younger sister and her best friend (whom I would later have a bit of a crush on) obsessing over Mariah Carey’s new Christmas album. I was admittedly more intrigued by the album artwork, because I was a 14-year-old boy in need of sanctification.

Over that Christmas and the next, every time I heard this song, I would think about that girl (the sister’s friend) whom I grew to admire from a distance and only got the courage to ask out once (to Homecoming–about a day after someone else asked her out). I will admit, to my great embarrassment, that no small amount of overwrought poetry was written in her honor.

The lyrics of this song are saccharine-sweet, pure teenage exuberance — essentially, I don’t want presents or treats or toys, I just want you, you would make my Christmas wish come true, oh baby baby baby. (I guess it makes sense that Justin Bieber eventually intruded into this song.)

I can imagine that Mariah Carey eventually got tired of singing this song for 30 years. (Or maybe not. Let’s be real, the royalties off this track alone have probably set her up for life financially.) I doubt anyone (Carey included) anticipated that it would become a cultural touchstone during the Christmas season, both deeply loved and also much maligned.

Personally, I don’t get why the track inspires the vitriol it sometimes does. Of course, it’s cheesy; so is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and you don’t see people freak out when Little Michael and his brothers start belting that out.

Maybe I’m just prone to enjoy cheesy music more than the average person. The whole “Whampocalypse” thing makes me chuckle, too, because “Last Christmas” is obviously silly and shallow but I’m not going to get mad about it. (There are only a few Christmas songs that really get under my skin; and yes, Michael, I am going to address that particular one before the month’s out.)

So hey, if you love the Mariah Carey track, or if you hate it, you have to at least acknowledge that it’s super catchy, it’s easily singable, and it’s got a degree of timeless wholesomeness that has kept it around for the last 3 decades.

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Since you know how much I adore unique covers, I’ll leave you with two for this song.

The first, by (4thDaveBlog favorite) Alex Melton, plays up the overwrought emotion with an emo-pop-punk take on the track:

And the second, from the criminally under-appreciated Jamie Cullum, brings a jazzy playfulness to the song that I really love:

Centennial.

Pausing the #ChristmasSongbook tonight, as we had a neighborhood Christmas festival to get to and I have too much to do the rest of the evening.

However, today marks my 100th* post in a row, so I didn’t want to break the chain. Don’t worry, you’ll get a double-dose of merriment tomorrow (Lord-willing) to make up for it.

This is the longest posting streak I’ve ever had. I have to say, I’m pretty proud of this. Hopefully, it’s not been too annoying for those of you subscribed by email. Once we get to the New Year, I’ll fall back to a 2-3 posts per week pace. I’m thinking something Bible-teaching-related on Mondays, a book review or something literary on Wednesdays, and maybe a fun video or more “silly” post on Fridays. We’ll see how that works out.

Thanks for being along for the ride. I appreciate it and hope it’s continuing to be entertaining and encouraging.

See you tomorrow!

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*Okay, “technically,” it wasn’t a pure 100-day streak. There was one day where I started writing the post, then was pulled away by family duties throughout the evening and couldn’t get back to writing until after midnight. I went ahead and gave myself grace by backdating the post to 11:59pm. This isn’t a competition, and I’m not going for any records here, so I let one slide. I’m still counting it as 100 days. Don’t @ me, as the kids say.

Christmas Songbook Day 8: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

The Gettys make every song better.

This track is a bit of a Christmas deep cut these days. Most popular “holiday music” is focused on the traditions and memory-making and the joy of family and friends, and even our Christmas hymns are carols are more celebratory than contemplative. Today’s selection goes in the opposite direction: full of Nativity imagery, this song quietly focuses on the simplicity and humility of the Incarnation. It sounds most like “Silent Night”–a lullaby hummed over a slumbering newborn.

The song began life as a poem by Christina Rosetti, published in 1872, and was set to music about 30 years later by Gustav Holst (the composer most famous for The Planets). Even if most of the 5 verses are unfamiliar to you, you probably know the last one: “What can I give Him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; / If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; / Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

The second verse is my favorite, however, because it not only combines the transcendence and immanence of God, demonstrated in the Incarnation, but it also looks ahead from the first coming of Jesus to the second: “Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain; / Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign. / In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed / The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.” A beautiful tribute to the Eternal Son, who didn’t consider equality with the Father a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself of glory to take on the humble form of a servant.

I think I need to work this song into my musical rotation more often. Good, good stuff here.

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Here’s one more version of it, for a slightly different flavor. The Getty’s are great, but I also dig this arrangement (though, interestingly, he changes “Almighty” to “Incarnate” in verse 2):

Christmas Songbook Day 7: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Death Cab for Cutie (orig. Darlene Love)

I don’t have a lot to say today, to be honest. This month is just beating me up a bit, in various little ways. Nothing major, I’m doing okay. Just a lot of load and not a lot of margin. Lots of people counting on me. I don’t feel up to the task.

Anyway, here’s a track I like. Besides Darlene Love’s original from the 60’s, the most popular versions of it are by “Rattle and Hum”-era U2 and the Christmas queen of the 90’s, Mariah Carey.

That said, I really like Win Butler’s plaintive drawl in this version. It sells the longing of the lyric, and doesn’t sound as cheery as the other versions do. In a sense, it almost sounds closer to a 60’s era crooner (think Frank Wilson of “Last Kiss” and “Tell Laura I Love Her”) than his later-era counterparts.

That’s it, that’s all, folks. Here’s a 2000’s indie band covering a song from the 60’s that was arguably covered better in the 90’s. How’s that for Christmas tradition?

Christmas Songbook Day 6: “Immanuel” by Michael Card

In 1988, the Christian musician Michael Card released a two-CD album called “The Life,” which chronicles the life of Christ. My parents purchased this one in a fancy cardboard box with two individual jewel cases holding each CD, along with a large booklet, in which the entire story of the life of Jesus was relayed in narrative form.

This album was a regular part of my childhood, but because about 10 of the almost 30 tracks had to do with Jesus’ birth narrative, I always associated this album with Christmas. As an adult, I was able to pick up my own copy of it and have listened to it regularly as part of my Christmas celebration.

As the album was written more than 30 years ago, the music may sound dated to younger ears. However, it’s the lyricism and the heart behind this project that make it shine. Plus, Card’s pure tenor vocals are a treat for the listener, leaving no doubt why he should be considered one of the icons of the 1980’s Christan music scene.

There were several tracks I could have chosen, but I really like how “Immanuel” weaves together the prophetic words of Isaiah with the powerful assurance of God’s presence and love from Paul in Romans 8.

If you’re able to get your hands on a copy of “The Life,” I would highly recommend it. Plus, I’m sure there are a few versions of it uploaded on YT and other streaming sites, so if you like this track, definitely seek out others. (“Celebrate the Child” and “The Final Word” are also fabulous.)

Christmas Songbook Day 5: “Christmas For Cowboys” by Jars of Clay (orig. John Denver)

My friend Kinsey made me a mix CD of Christmas music back in 2008 that has become one of my favorite holiday albums/compilations ever. It’s a great mix of classic Christmas radio hits and traditional carols, as well as some fun and funky entries. What I appreciate most about it is that it’s so eclectic. You’ll get The Carpenters, followed by Joy Electric, followed by Guster singing awkward Spanish. It’s pretty fun to pop that in during group events to get people’s reactions.

The mix opens up with Bing Crosby’s “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” — perfect intro. But then Track 2 complete switches gears with a contrasting vision of the Christmas season: Jars of Clay’s cover of “Christmas for Cowboys,” a song I would only later learn was a John Denver track. The stripped-down, almost somber nature of the track gives it a real sense of the quiet and isolation of the prairie. There’s something really special about that vibe that I enjoy.

Sometimes in the hustle and hasty moments of December’s non-stop pace, it’s nice to listen to this track and imagine a moment of quiet and campfire meditation during the Christmas season. Perhaps that’s the longing that my heart feels for true rest.

Anyway, it’s a great track, and the first of 2 Jars of Clay Christmas covers on this list. (The next one will be, let’s say, a bit more controversial.)

If you want to compare this version to the original, it’s tagged below. For my money, the slower cover version is just a tad better.

Christmas Songbook Day 4: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

Technically, we’re in the Advent season, for those who stick to a formal church calendar. I never grew up celebrating Advent, as such. Our household pretty much shifted into full holly-jolly mode on Thanksgiving, if not sooner. (Plus, being Southern Baptist, our high holy days are pretty much Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Super Bowl Sunday… Kidding. Mostly.)

The thing that the Advent season seems to capture is longing. That’s something that we see in the Scriptures as well: a longing for what God has promised to come to pass. This theme is woven throughout the entire story of the Bible. Ever since God promised that the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the Serpent, all of creation had been waiting with groaning for the Messiah to arrive.

This is the anxious anticipation that we see in the writings of the Old Testament prophets, who litigate the Law against God’s people (and God’s enemies) and look forward to the coming King who would defeat God’s foes and unite His people under a single banner. At the beginning of the Gospels, we see people who are still longing and praying for the consolation of captive Israel (Luke 2:25) and the Messiah who would rescue his people.

That’s what Christmas is about: promises kept, prayers answered, and anxious anticipation satisfied.

No Christmas song captures this longing for God’s rescue and victory as much as “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” That’s one of the reasons I love it so. There’s a melancholy tone to it, a mourning-with-hope in the verses that then resolves to hope realized in the chorus.

Rejoice! Rejoice, O Israel! He who is “God with Us” is now truly with us.

And for those of us who have hailed his arrival with joy, repenting of sin and trusting in the saving work of Jesus the Messiah, who died and rose and is coming again–for us, the precious Holy Spirit abides within us as a guarantee that our Emmanuel will return to rescue us on the last day.

Rejoice, indeed.

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I just recently heard this version of the song, and it is, quite literally, a banger:

Christmas Songbook Day 3: “Must Be Santa” by Bob Dylan

Sometimes the #ChristmasSongbook selections will be about personal memories or spiritual reflections. Other times, they will be discussions of the inexplicable weirdness of cultural Christmas artifacts or just a celebration of the silly and fun traditions of the holiday season.

Today is squarely in that second category.

First, the song itself: “Must Be Santa” was originally written and recorded in 1960 and has been a well-known Christmas tune ever since. It’s actually a riff on the classic German-American tune “Schnitzelbank” (which folks of my generation may know better as “The International Friendship Song” thanks to Animaniacs). “Must Be Santa” has been covered multiple times over the last 60 years, but never quite like Bob Dylan did it in 2010 for his album Christmas in the Heart. In this version, you obviously get later-years Dylan who has started sounding more and more like Tom Waits (someone get this man a throat lozenge, please?). The tempo is flying, and it’s clear that the normally laid-back Dylan is barely hanging onto it with white knuckles. It’s a short little ditty (under 3 minutes), and it’s a harmless piece of fluff. If Dylan’s voice doesn’t grate on you too much, it’s not something that would make you turn the radio dial on your family roadtrip; you’d probably just join in on the song.

But this video. Uffda.

I’m simultaneously baffled and entranced by this frenetic visual collage. If you will permit me, I’ll address my main thoughts in a series of bullets.

  • The opening counter is a bit cheeky with its retro look. It sets you up to expect something staid and classic like Andy Williams or Bing Crosby. Not “Twas the Polka Rave before Christmas.”
  • The frame irises in, revealing the accordion player, and we’re off to the races. The iris effect is interesting in retrospect, because it visually indicates this is a performance, a play–it’s hyper-reality.
  • Bobby Dylan is wearing a black smoking jacket and a white top hat, his stringy hair hanging down over his face as he mouths the words while looking somewhat distracted and befuddled. Also, he’s clearly a wizard, because in this video that is shot and edited to look like a long serious of single-takes, he seems to teleport around the house.
  • Now, I think we’d have to classify Bobby the White as a “chaotic-neutral” character in this scene. He doesn’t really help anyone in his vicinity; he just sort of looks around bemusedly and occasionally pulls out booze or a cigar. He also does things like throwing lit matches onto the floor in the middle of the entryway. I mean, we can’t assume this is his house, just because he’s one of the oldest people in the building. It is possible he’s the Gatsby of this particular festive fete, but it’s equally possible he’s the wild card, a renegade guest tagging along with the younger crowd’s party and creating just a little extra trouble as he goes.
  • Of course, another point in the column for our “Dylan is a chaotic wizard” argument is that he is clearly leading the song, providing the “call” for everyone to “answer”–and I do mean everyone. Until one key moment in the video, everyone in the building is singing and/or dancing to his tune. What is this enchantment that Robertus Dylanus is weaving over the house party? To what nefarious ends might such a spell be used?
  • Suddenly, the Christmas enchanter is dancing with ease among the crowd–moving so sprightly, I might add, that I’m half-convinced that he’s not so much teleporting as creating magical doppelgangers that appear throughout the house and can move much more gracefully than he can. Obviously, the doubles are corporeal enough to grab the hands of the other dancers. Oh, this Dylan’s powers are formidable indeed!
  • At around the 1:50 mark, the story of the video shifts abruptly as a man in a black suit is being chased through the second-floor hallway and down the flight of stairs by at least two men. The man in black pushes people out of the way, leaps over tables, scales a bookshelf to use its tchotchkes as defensive projectiles. He runs from room to room, evading his pursuers, swinging on chandeliers, jumping through a picture window, and finally escaping into the night. What is his story? I actually watched the video a few times to see if there is a backstory seeded in the crowd scenes, but I couldn’t find it. Did the man in black kiss someone else’s lady? Did he owe someone money? Was the conflict caused by drink and rowdy jostling in the crowded hallways of the party house? The world may never know. It remains forever a Christmas mystery.
  • The final shot is Dylan the White look in the direction of the escaped party-goer, standing next to the Jolly Old Elf himself in full Coca-Cola glory. They exchange a knowing glance and half-shrug as the frame irises out with the final image being Bobby D, the Puck of the party. He’s obviously not the real Santa, but they seem to know each other. So who is he? An elf? Jack Frost? A less-scary version of Krampus? It’s unclear. What can be clearly ascertained from this video is that Bob Dylan is a chaotic wizard who can mind-control large crowds of people while creating corporeal dopplegangers of himself to do his bidding, so we all should be on our guard. He’s obviously persuaded Santa Claus to join his side, which means no one is safe.

All in all, this song is a goof, and the video is a lark. How can such magical silliness still exist in our all-too-serious world full of pedantic works of art that cannot be released unless they contain Big, Important Ideas?

I dunno. Must be Santa Claus.

Christmas Songbook Day 2: “O Holy Night”

When I was either a junior or senior in high school (at a very small Christian school, fewer than 100 in the whole HS), we had a Christmas assembly in the gym for our normal Wednesday chapel. There was a program of special music and readings by the teachers, the choir, and the kids in the music class.

At one point, I felt…compelled–I don’t know how else to describe it–to get up and approach the microphone. If you had asked me at the time, I would have told you the Holy Spirit prompted me to do it. (Obviously, this was before I became reformed and would shudder at sounding anything like a charismatic.) But I walked up to the microphone in between performances, and started to sing.

I sang “O Holy Night” acapella. In front of my class, teachers, administrators, everyone. And believe it or not, I actually did okay. I mean, I’m no Groban, but I made it through the first verse, chorus, and repeated refrain successfully with no forgotten words or voice cracks. I even went for and miraculously hit the high note on the last chorus.

As soon as I finished, I quick-walked back to my seat on the bleachers, eyes on the floor, as I felt the flush of embarrassment start to creep up my cheeks and ears. A buddy sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, “I can’t believe you just did that. …Why did you do that?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I was worried you were going to miss that last note, but you hit it, man. Nice!”

“Thanks.”

To this day, I had no idea why I did that. It wasn’t ego, I don’t think. It wasn’t a desire to be up-front or on-stage; that was probably the year or two of my life when I had the most opportunity for being in the spotlight (like I said, really small school). If pressed, I would have told you at the moment that I just felt like it needed to be done, by me, right then.

Looking back? I think it was simply my small act of worship. Like the little drummer boy, I had one gift to bring, and I decided that was my moment to bring it.

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This is still one of my favorite versions of the song, and really because of the context. This was from the emotional “Christmas episode” of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a failed Aaron Sorkin dramedy series that I really quite liked, which lasted only 1 season in 2006. So, all of the character stuff will probably not mean much to you without that background. Nevertheless, the instrumental version of the song, played by a group of musicians from New Orleans, just a little over a year after surviving Katrina? Gorgeous, no context needed.

“…you should go ahead and chew that sandwich.”