Last week, I said I didn't have many strong memories attached to traditional Christmas music. I said it was because I've heard those traditional songs so many times, in so many places, and by so many people that they don't occupy unique places and times, or even a unique feeling, in my head.
But that doesn't mean I don't have other Christmas music memories. They just don't get triggered by "traditional" Christmas songs.
My parents are Parrotheads. Mild Parrotheads, but Parrotheads nonetheless (my mom more than my dad). They've listened to Jimmy Buffett music for as long as I can remember, and the earliest music memories I have come from Fruitcakes, Banana Wind, Barometer Soup, and his box set Boats, Beaches, Bars, and Ballads. I still remember the first few notes of "Why Don't We Get Drunk," but not the rest of the song. (My parents made a tape of his compilation Songs You Know By Heart back when normal cars didn't have CD players, and I could tell they skipped to the next song for the kids!)
Jimmy also put out a Christmas album, titled, appropriately enough, Christmas Island. Those are the holiday songs I know the best. I have moved with them, been moved by them, and learned things from them. (It helped that I first heard these songs when I was eight or nine years old, and thus like a musical open book.)
This is how much the album has had an influence on my Christmas music, for better or for worse:
- I first heard John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" from Jimmy. You could argue that's quite a shame, and I'd probably agree with you. I've heard John and Yoko's original since then, but it doesn't sound original to me.
- I thought Jimmy wrote "Mele Kalikimaka." I always knew "I'll Be Home for Christmas" wasn't his, but it took me about two or three years before I learned "Mele Kalikimaka" was over 50 years old. Also, it wasn't until I researched for this post that he didn't write the album's most touching song, "Merry Christmas, Alabama (Never Far From Home)."
- My favorite rendition of "Jingle Bells" is from this album, largely because of his added verse and his animated "conversation" with Santi Rasta. And once I learned that, in the 70s and 80s, he smuggled marijuana while living in Key West, the conversation (and the name of his backing guys, the Coral Reefer Band) made MUCH more sense.
- "Run Rudolph Run," another surprising cover (I gave Jimmy too much credit!), has some history in my family. For a few Christmas Eves in elementary school, my brother and I would run around the house chasing each other when our parents inevitably played the song. I think both of us were Rudolph. Sadly, I can't find THAT video. Then again, that might be for the best.
- I blame the hidden track for my memorization of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." I know the whole story, from "'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house..." to "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night," but the only way I can tell it is in Jimmy's syncopation and tone.
- I don't know if I'll ever like any Christmas song better than I do "Ho Ho Ho & A Bottle Of Rhum." This song (a Buffett original, finally!) played an over-important role in my development. It was my first exposure to cynicism and snark about deeply-embedded cultural traditions. I learned what "crass" meant when I looked it up in the dictionary after reading the liner notes. I, oddly enough, retained some good writing tools from the lyrics, like internal rhyme, juxtaposition, and very concrete description ("chimney scars cover his buns").
- ...I take part of that last point back. This morning, I sang to myself the other Buffett original on the album, "A Sailor's Christmas." Immediately, long-forgotten images came flooding back to me: a palm tree with Christmas tree lights hanging over a bay, the slow drift of time while sailing, the ability to travel almost anywhere on a boat, the intense desire to be the kind of person who, at least just once, "spends his Christmas in a harbor 'neath the stars." "Ho Ho Ho & A Bottle of Rhum" may make me smile more, but my reaction to "A Sailor's Christmas" is, at the same time, more visceral and more all-consuming. I haven't heard this song in years, but I still remember all the lyrics. It's that powerful to me.
You could argue that Christmas Island, because of the unorthodox associations to "Happy Xmas," "A Visit from St. Nicholas," and other works that it forged in my head, ruined Christmas music for me. This time, however, I would disagree with you. I still like Christmas music, but I have a different Christmas music experience than most Americans living in the current cultural context. There's nothing right or wrong with it; that's just how it is. So there.
Next time, I need (NEED) to talk about the music from my favorite Christmas movie, "A Christmas Story." It's as essential as drinking your Ovaltine, and I think many people would be able to identify with the feelings a good cry of "Bumpuses!!!!" brings to you.