Friday, 17 December 2010

bah! humbug

I don’t hate Christmas, but I don’t hold any particular affection for it either: all that posing and pretending, all that false bonhomie. Fortunately, living where I do in a relatively remote part of the northern New Territories, I can ignore it—most of the time. The painful exception is when I have to do the daily shopping. Promptly on the first of December each year, all the malls and supermarkets start playing the hideous music that has somehow become attached to this festival over their PA systems. I do most of my shopping in the local wet market, but there are all too many items that are available only in the local ParknShop. That’s a local joke, by the way; apart from some of its branches in posh out-of-town areas, I’ve yet to find a ParknShop where you can actually park a car. You’d be lucky to find somewhere to park a bicycle at most of its stores.

Even pieces that might otherwise be tolerable lose their lustre when heard over a typical PA system. It reminds me of the bingly-bongly sound produced by an ice cream van. And some pieces would still sound horrible if played by a professional symphony orchestra in a hall with perfect acoustics. The most annoying are those that have been traditionally associated with Christmas but in fact have nothing to do with it: Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland and, worst of all by some considerable distance, Jingle Bells, which is a real turkey. I think that my own personal Room 101 would be a bare concrete cell within which I would be free to move but in which the only sound I could hear would be Jingle Bells playing on an endless tape loop through really tinny speakers.

Not that Christmas songs that actually mention Christmas are much better. I can well do without hearing Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, White Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas at any time of year. On the other hand, perhaps I should be thankful that I am forced to endure this brain-numbing ‘music’ for but a limited season. The local birds are quiet at this time of year too, unfortunately, and the really musical ones won’t be back until March, so I’ll simply have to put up with this unwanted aural assault without compensatory back-up on my walk back home across the fields after shopping.

Not far behind in terms of the level of induced nausea but thankfully far easier to avoid are the various Christmas songs that have been released by popular singers over the years. It is as if once established they feel obliged to offer a Christmas song at some point in their careers, and some of the best singers have produced some of the worst songs. Aesthetic judgement disappears even more completely than the average one-hit wonder.

I’m not going to provide a comprehensive list though (too painful), but mention must be made of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, Elton John’s Step into Christmas and Wham’s Last Christmas. However, two of the offerings in this category would stand out as worthwhile songs at any time of year: Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas and Fairytale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. And an honourable exception must also be made of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? It made an important political statement (and it was a far better song than USA for Africa’s pretentious riposte).

We are on firmer foundations when discussing Christmas carols, although there are some horrors here too: I cringe every time I hear Away in a Manger, and Silent Night wouldn’t seem out of place at a funeral. On the other hand, it would almost be worth going to church at this time of year for the chance to belt out God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Angels from the Realms of Glory, Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Come All Ye Faithful without someone telling me that I can’t sing, even though it’s impossible to take the words seriously.

Especial opprobrium attaches to O Christmas Tree, which must take the prize for the most banal lyric of any traditional yuletide song. And even though the melody is slightly better, I find it difficult to imagine that a self-respecting socialist could sing The Red Flag with a straight face, knowing from whence the tune of the song he is singing was filched. ‘Middle-class sentimentality’ would have been Lenin’s verdict. And, when I stop to think about it, I can’t imagine that a self-respecting socialist would join the British Labour Party, for which this song is an unofficial anthem, in the first place.


  1. You want Room 101-esque torture? Try working in a tiny shop during the Christmas season where you're forced to play the same Bing Crosby Christmas CD on a boombox ad nauseam.

  2. I'm not sure if you know, but a few years back now The Darkness did a damn good Christmas song, nicely titled 'Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells End)' which I think you'd like.

  3. I don't like it when they play Christmas music through speakers, either. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is the one that really drives me up the wall; some others I can tolerate, and even like.

  4. Diego, if that's what you have to put up with at Christmas, you have my deepest sympathies. At least I can avoid Christmas music almost all the time, and my scenario was purely hypothetical.

    Tristan, I have two Darkness CDs, but they're both in the UK, and I don't think the track you mention is on either of them. I'll check it out.

    Eagle, I agree: Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is particularly insidious, intimidating children ("He's...gonna find out who's naughty and nice"). Disgusting!

  5. Dennis, sometimes I am a sucker for all the Christmacy stuff, as it is the only time that we get to hear some familiar songs. Though we are predominantly a Hindu country, commercialism has not spared us when it comes to celebrating some common festivals. But I do get a bit irritated when I see Santa waving and smiling. For me, that is a spoiler. Again, it is the mood which determines all these things.

    But one thing, I must say is that, you are one of the few bloggers whose language and vocabulary is impeccable. I learn atleast three new words when I drop in but I forget them once the context is lost. Maybe you should write a post on retaining the words that are learnt new.

    Joy always,

  6. I look for a way to hibernate every December - without success. :(

  7. Susan, thank you for your kind appraisal of my writing. I know that you've read Mind Your Language, so you'll know how much I value precision and accuracy. As for how to remember newly learned words: try to use them as often as possible, so that meaning and context become fixed in your memory.

    Fatuous, I wish I could advise. Move to Hong Kong and live in a village? And keep out of the supermarket until January? I can do one, but not the other.

  8. I deplore the commercialization of Christmas, but it has been a factor ever since the first Marches de Noel started in Strasburg in the 1600's.
    I actually welcome the holiday at this time of the year. It helps if you live somewhere with a real winter and this year, we really have one....
    I admit that I am not religiously inclined, but I am a sentimental fool.
    This year, I have been trying to find Christmas songs that fit the mood of the times...My favorite so far is Dolly Parton's Hard Candy Christmas from The Best Little Whore House in Texas.
    If We Make It Through December by Merle Haggard is a close second....
    Any suggestions?

  9. Sorry microdot, I have nothing beyond the songs I quoted above with approval, although I admit to not listening to C&W music, so I'm unlikely to find anything that attracts me under that umbrella.

    I know what you mean about a midwinter holiday, but I can afford to forgo Christmas. The New Year is just over six weeks away.

  10. If I could, I would try to avoid Christmas music until Christmas day. I wouldn't want to see it disappear completely. There are too many pleasant childhood memories that the songs evoke. I just don't like my memories being exploited as early as mid-November and as a come-on for shopping.

  11. I want the repetitious musac removed from all malls forevermore. As far as the actual Christmas music goes I would like it to be heard in public spaces and places only from December 24th until January 1. That would be more tolerable.

  12. I LOVE Christmas music, though only during the holiday season which, BTW, should not be two months long (I'm talking to you, retailers!) Like you, though, there are some atrocious ones. My least favorite? 'Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer.' It just grates on me. Yuck!

  13. Photodiction, I guess I'm lucky in being able to avoid piped Christmas music most of the time. I'm the only foreigner around these parts, so I see little or no evidence of Christmas. Chinese New Year is different: lion dances, firecrackers, fireworks (Hong Kong's annual New Year display is the best in the world), blessing the roast pig (and scoffing it afterwards) and the 12-course village dinner, held in the open air for 350+ people.

    timethief, I agree that muzak is an unwanted assault upon the senses and should be banned. I might even look more favourably on Christmas music if, as you suggest, it didn't start up so far in advance.

    Janene, it's become a running joke how early shops start promoting Christmas. As for Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer. I haven't heard it, but I can imagine that it might be funny the first time and irritating thereafter.

  14. Oh, this post is a treasure. Agreed re: Room 101! What might make it worse: cheap, tinny speakers ... and *static*. It all equals nails scraping down a blackboard!

    I made a seasonal CD last year of really mellow jazz (Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, etc.) and spare, crystalline arrangements of pre-18th c. carols. Oh -- and Al Green's version of "White Christmas". Al Green can sing the phone book and I'll swoon :-)

    I am actively mourning a recent loss, and several of my beloveds have died during the Christmas season. So this year I've got no cheer ... though I feel, as I make sure to every day, gratitude for the blessed ordinaries, and I'll be diving into the mayhem on Xmas morning with my niece (age 3) and nephew (7). They *must* have their favourite Auntie there, and I will oblige them, even as I scheme on how I'm going to one day convince them that the stuff and crap of Crassmas is *not* what this holy day means. They'll come to understand that the return of Light is the gift ...

    So, while I was actively mourning in the grocery store a few weeks ago, the slurry pap of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" droned out of everywhere like an auditory OD of Soma (Somewhere in the New Yorker cartoon archives is a Jack Ziegler piece that illustrates the effect: Three late-late-night diner customers slouched on stools at the counter; one short-order cook at the grill. A single musical note, fractured, spits out of an overhead speaker. Everybody's ' eyes are cast downward, faces hunched like those of old bloodhounds. The guy flipping burgers wipes at a tear that's popped from his eye. The caption reads: 'OUR SONG').

    ... My knees turned to jelly and I grabbed at the nearest shelf. Lucky for me it was only stuffed with greeting cards, so I didn't add any smashing. sauce-splattering percussion to the drivel. I did attract bovine stares from other Bing-blasted shoppers ...

    Oscar Peterson's arrangement of "Silent Night" is ... Oscar ... in a state of pure tendresse. It really is a dose of "heavenly peace", however one experiences that ...

  15. Thank you for such an remarkably detailed comment Jaliya. My condolences regarding the loss of people close to you. It's never a good time of year for that to happen.

    I've never been keen on jazz, but the pre-18th-century carols do sound enticing.

  16. Yes, yes, and... yes. One of my least favorite songs of all time is "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." I can't stand the sound of it. Especially when the radio producers decide that it'd be a swell idea to play it 15 times a day. Enjoyed your post; thanks for commenting on mine.

  17. This is an excellent post, and I only stumbled across your blog after you replied to my discussion in Blog Catalog.
    I will continue to follow your blog! (and it's not often I say that)

  18. This is an excellent post.
    The boy Tony and me look forward to following your blog!

  19. This is an excellent post.
    We look forward to following your blog!

  20. Nathan Road is bad at any time. At Christmas it must be impossible! Good one, Dennis. :-)


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