‘Tis the season for holiday music that intrudes, annoys, and entraps. Like a zombie, “Feliz Navidad” dies every year only to return — everywhere. On the car radio, in the mall, on hold, at your kid’s school (provided they omit the holiday’s first syllable) you can’t escape Christmas music.
The radio staples are as amorphous as they are ubiquitous. The Pogues offer a Christmas anthem for St. Patrick’s Day in “A Fairytale of New York.” Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” hits the ears as a Yuletide hymn for atheists. And for the densely populated left end of the bell curve, there’s “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” A few Christmas songs for Christians remain, too.
Making a song about Christmas is a good way to get a bad song on heavy rotation. There are too many dreadful recordings about the joyous day to narrow the worst of the worst compositions down below a hundred. The best ones (“White Christmas,” “Silent Night,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) can be counted on an eight-beaded abacus. My favorite is a blunt rock tune that dispenses with the trite musical markers, e.g., a platoon of trumpets or a cherubic choir announcing His arrival, that so unsubtly scream: Christmas song!
The number that most embodies the spirit of the season depicts a violent robbery of Santa Claus. Thirty-five Christmases ago, The Kinks released “Father Christmas,” a gritty tale about a department-store Santa getting rolled by a gang of teenagers. “Father Christmas, give us some money/We got no time for your silly toys/We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over/Give all the toys to the little rich boys.”
It’s a 45 with a sense of humor. It also has a sense of the Beatitudes.
If upon first listen “Father Christmas” rings as cynicism inverting the spirit of giving into one of taking, subsequent spins reveal a track telling us to give thanks for our good fortune rather than the small fortune under the tree. A hoodlum instructs St. Nick to hold off on the Bionic Man costume for his brother and the cuddly doll for his sister. “But give my daddy a job cause he needs one/He’s got lots of mouths to feed.”
“Father Christmas” invites us to be more Christ like. An ode superficially about the ultimate expression of materialism (theft) becomes a spiritual admonition to remember the least among us. Empathy with other people’s troubles occasionally minimizes their troubles. It always minimizes our own. Christmas is a good time to count blessings rather than money.
Though covered numerous times, “Father Christmas” exudes authenticity only in the original. The seventh child of a seventh child, Ray Davies grew up in postwar London’s working class Muswell Hill section. Eventually carted off to live with an older sister’s family, Davies received from another older sister, Irene, several life-changing presents: Elvis records, and, on the day she died of a heart attack while out dancing, a guitar. December 25th meant tearful, inebriated renditions of “Goodnight Irene” at the cramped Davies home.
Ultimately, Ray Davies would play the mugged Santa Claus as he had earlier played the covetous kid. Nine years ago, a week or so after Christmas, a purse-snatching duo shot The Kinks’ lead singer and songwriter in the French Quarter after he pursued them. Maybe the small-money Big Easy thieves misinterpreted his song.
This doesn’t mean other listeners should, too. The multimillionaire rocker’s younger self preaches to his older self as much as anyone else when he instructs: “Have yourself a merry, merry Christmas/Have yourself a good time/But remember the kids who got nothing/While you’re drinking down your wine.”