Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Best/Worst Songs of Christmas

Earlier this month my brother shared his picks for the best “worst” Christmas songs ever. He and a friend were making their list and checking it far more than was probably healthy. As often happens when my brother and I chat, something from our conversation sticks in my mind, kind of like a splinter that gets worried but not removed. I entirely blame my brother for my misspent morning tracking down several favorites from my secular Christmas list—ghosts of Christmas past, if you will. These tunes have haunted me for a few days, so I decided to track them down and share.

If you like films, you’ve probably had memorable encounters with Love Actually, About a Boy, and Melvin and Howard. If you like television or have a thing for Mounties, you probably have spent an evening or two being charmed by Paul Gross’ Constable Benton Fraser (Due South). What you may not recall quite so easily are the highly entertaining holiday songs associated with these films or performers.

In 1980, Melvin and Howard hypothesized the later life of Howard Hughes, with some standout performances by Paul Le Mat, Jason Robards, and Mary Steenburgen, who won an Oscar for best supporting actress. The film is worth a second look, especially if you weren’t around for a first look 30 years ago, but for those purely seeking holiday cheer, YouTube comes to the rescue:

“Santa’s Souped Up Sleigh” somehow was overlooked by Oscar, but not by YouTube fans of Paul Le Mat, who, as Melvin, manages to get Jason Robard’s Howard to sing along. The rendition may not be award worthy, but the lyrics are well worth the three minutes of your life required to play the scene from YouTube.

Similar in theme but with a bit more critical acclaim is About a Boy’s “Santa’s Super Sleigh,” featuring lyrics such as

Look who's coming 'round the bend,
It's Santa and his reindeer friends,
And they've got the right of way,
It's Santa's super sleigh!

About a Boy (2002) is a fantastic film that is alternately tragic and heartwarming, poignant and funny, as the lives of these misfit characters unfold and reconnect. Watch it on a snowy afternoon with your friends, and if that happens during the holidays, join in for the chorus.

Hugh Grant winningly illustrates our universal love/horror relationship with many popular holiday songs. Like eggnog going slightly round the bend or fruit cake that won’t die (or be eaten even by less-than-picky squirrels foraging in winter), these songs combine the best of loving intentions with the most memorable of misguided results.

In the mid- to late ‘90s I spent a lot of time in Toronto, some of it watching Due South be filmed on city streets or attending RCW 139 fan conventions. As a long-time Paul Gross fan, I had to smile when I came across my special edition DVD of “Santa Drives a Pickup.” Fortunately, YouTube again comes through with a music video to share. If your idea of singing Mounties extends only to Nelson Eddy (thanks for the reminder, Celine Dion’s twins), Paul Gross and David Keeley easily supplant that image with a holiday rendition that quickly may become your favorite seasonal music video. It’s once again become mine:

Last, but certainly not least, in volume or quality, is Bill Nighy-as-Billy-Mack’s “Christmas Is All Around” from 2003’s Love Actually, now officially my favorite holiday film. It’s a Wonderful Life became a family tradition, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law, and The Snowman thrilled us on Christmas mornings when my niece was much younger, but Love Actually is my feel-good film when I need a smile or fear “love” actually fails to live up to its hype. I adore Bill Nighy on general principle, and “Christmas Is All Around” is part of my annual playlist. This soundtrack is easy to find, but if you want a quick reminder between trips to the mall, listen to

without video or watch

The roots of family holiday traditions run deeply through our memories, and they can help culturally define us. Without minimizing the serious religious undercurrent to our highly secular celebrations, I still find that my kitschy Christmas traditions are the ones I bring out for a good laugh. They are a memento of happy Christmases, reminders of the songs, laughter, and general weirdness that binds families and friends.

So this morning when I started searching for the sounds of Christmas past, I also dusted off more than the old DVD collection. I remember first seeing Love Actually in a theatre with my mom, then loudly shower-singing “All I Want for Christmas” every morning of the holiday I thought I’d found true love, and, a season or two later, bopping with Billy Mack during a solitary Christmas drive. I recall dragging my family and friends to snowy Toronto to see the Huron Carole more than once and, during one trip, bumping into Paul Gross and finding out I wasn’t the only fangirl in my circle. I think about discovering a grownup interest in film shared between siblings just becoming adults, and the mutually anticipated holiday film seasons that followed.

Maybe these songs and their links to films or TV series remind me that, whether I’m sending best wishes by phone or helping to stuff stockings before the fire on December 24, Christmas is about family. They may be our birth families or the ones we create; they may be shiny and excitingly new or the fondly conjured spirits of Christmases past. ‘Tis the season to remember that laughter and love live forever.

So will these songs, or others like them—a hearty ho ho ho for our Christmas present, and that may be one of the best gifts of all.

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