I love Christmas carols. In fact, I’m listening to some right now. Sure, Easter has Here Comes Peter Cottontail and Thanksgiving has Hey, Let’s Go Shoot Some Turkeys, but no other holiday has its own entire genre of music, which makes Christmas pretty special.
As a songwriter, I have come to respect a handful of Christmas carols as utter genius. I should qualify this by saying that I’m only including modern carols as we know them: The post-19th century stuff, so all of you who were like, “Oh hellz yeah, JT, Veni Redemptor Gentium is my jam, bro,” are going to be slightly disappointed with my list.
Here then are my Top Three Christmas Carols, And The Wines That Pair With Them:
#3: What Are You Doing New Years Eve? This song overflows with subtext and irony like the sack on Santa’s back, and is absolutely resplendent with all the dysfunction of the holiday season. It has jealousy (Wonder whose arms will hold you good and tight, when it’s exactly twelve o’clock at night?) self-loathing (Maybe I’m crazy to suppose I’d ever be the one you chose out of the thousand invitations you’d receive) and this weird, stalker-like vibe (Maybe it’s just too early in the game, but then I think I’ll ask you just the same). If you got that in a text, you’d block that psycho’s number.
But in the end, like all great Christmas carols, the song has this sense of hope; of rebirth and redemption: But if you think I stand one little chance, here comes the jackpot question in advance…what are you doing New Years Eve? Then, most genius of all, the song just ends and leaves the question unanswered. We don’t know if this guy gets the date or not. It’s up to us to decide the outcome based on our own emotional bias.
What Are You Doing New Years Eve Pairs With: 2014 Dracaena Wines Cabernet Franc, Paso Robles. I should tell you up front that I’ve always found Cabernet Francs to be hit and miss. Chinon is probably the most famous and revered Cab Franc region in France, but to my palate, they produce wines that smell like someone took a bunch of rotted bell peppers, stuck them in Aaron Rodgers’ tube sock and left the whole thing in the toilet for a few weeks. In the hands of true artisans, however, the magic of Cab Franc can be coaxed into a bottle, and this is what winemakers Lori and Michael of Dracaena Wines have done. The nose has earth and vegetation, but does not overpower the subtle fruit, which is brought to life with a kick of 10% petite sirah. Maybe they’re crazy to suppose this would be the Cab Franc you chose…but they’re not. Get it NOW before it sells out like the 2013 vintage.
#2: I’ll Be Home For Christmas. Context is really the key to appreciating any work of art. I’ll Be Home For Christmas was written in 1943, from the perspective of a GI in World War II, writing home from the front lines. The song was originally rejected by Decca Records because the closing line, I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams was too much of a downer, but the writer sang it to Bing Crosby one day on the golf course and Bing recorded it anyway. To me, the 1957 Frank Sinatra recording is the ultimate version, and is perhaps one of the most emotionally devastating songs I’ve ever heard.
I probably feel this way because of the connection I have with the song through my late, great Uncle Jim. He was a bombardier in WWII, shot down three times. One of the only times he ever opened up about his experience overseas was while this song played one Christmas Eve. Among other things, he had a fair dose of Survivor’s Guilt, which was certainly triggered by this song and the holiday season in general. But my Uncle also understood that a bottle of champagne cures all ills. Well, maybe it doesn’t cure them, but it makes you think of champagne instead, which sometimes is just as good.
I’ll Be Home For Christmas Pairs With: 2013 Schramsberg Brut Rose. In honor of Second Lieutenant Lyndon James Watson – soldier, husband, father, scientist, bon vivant and raconteur – I’m going with the bubbles. Vintage after glorious vintage, Schramsberg proves to me that they’re the premiere domestic sparkling wine. The 2013 Brut Rose has tons of creaminess, bright fruit, fine bubbles and all the hallmarks of a magnificent sparkler, along with the exquisite character of Napa’s 2013 vintage. Uncle Jim would probably say, “you could have bought four bottles of Andre for that price,” but then, he’d also say, “be a fine fellow and fill my glass with that,” then play his Wurlitzer organ buck-ass naked except for a gorilla mask. The Greatest Generation indeed.
…And the best Christmas song ever written is: Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime, Paul McCartney, 1979. Nawwww, just messing with you. That song is an abomination. However, I am going to cop out of pairing a wine with this next song, because it would draw a parallel with “The Number One Wine,” and that’s the kind of decision you make on your death bed.
#1: The Christmas Song. Songs are like first dates: You’ve got about thirty seconds at most to hook in the listener before they decide whether to change the channel. This means you have to get to the emotional core of the song right quick. The Christmas Song does this simply and brilliantly. Originally written by “The Velvet Fog” himself, Mel Torme, this classic is mostly a laundry list of Christmas awesomeness: The chestnuts on the fire, Jack Frost’s shenanigans, carolers doing their caroler thing, etc, etc, etc. Then it ends with this kind of self-deprecating acknowledgment that it’s not trying to reinvent the Yuletide Wheel with its sentiment: Although its been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you.
Ever wonder why almost all popular songs are love songs? Because love is something that everyone can relate to, and one need not say much more than “I love you” to get the point across. The Christmas Song taps into this universal truth in a seasonal kind of way, while putting the old adage “Keep it simple, stupid” front and center. It sums it all up and serves it on a platter like a mug of hot mulled wine. Oh, and there’s no self-hatred or massive casualties involved, either, which is kind of cool.
That said, most people try to fight the innate feeling of sadness, loss and depression that comes during the holidays, but the truth is, you’re supposed to feel that way at Christmas, just as surely as you’re supposed to feel joy and hope. As the story goes, on Christmas day, God gave unto us his only begotten son, a savior for all mankind. This man preached love and kindness, and above all, forgiveness. And we killed him for it. We drove nails into his hands and feet and let him rot to death on a cross of wood. So yeah, metaphorically speaking, this whole birth-of-Jesus story is both powerfully redemptive and totally fucked up. Therefore, so is Christmas.
We have been celebrating the turn of this season for as long as we’ve been a species. Winter comes, and with it comes cold and death and night. But eventually, the clouds clear. The sun returns. The ice melts and leaves appear on the vines. A disciple speaks of forgiveness and someone listens.
Peace on Earth. Goodwill to men.