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December 23, 2005

  • The Great Christmas Amnesty
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    I have a small confession to make and I say it looking over my shoulder, seeing if anyone is ready to take me out now for saying such a thing: I bought a Diana Krall album a couple of weeks ago.

    You must understand that up until now I have hitherto demonstrated no earthly—or unearthly— interest in Diana Krall. I find her to be too much what people think their idea of a sexy jazz singer should be as opposed to being an actually sexy jazz singer. I'm not the only one who has this opinion. Somewhere north of Vancouver, my childhood best friend is arranging a contract killing to be taken out on me because he threatened to do that to me if I listened to her. Even my beloved sounded a note of disdain I have not heard since she accidentally caught a glimpse the colony of dust bunnies and detritus that was under my bed.

    In my defence I can only say that I bought Diana Krall's Christmas album.

    I was in a Sam the Record Man and I heard her singing "Christmas Time Is Here" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" and decided I had to have this album. Because it was everything a Christmas album should be: pretty, a little schmaltzy and unremittingly sentimental.

    And that, frankly, should be all I need to beat the rap.

    Because when it comes down to it, the best thing about the holiday season is that it's okay to like schmaltzy, sentimental and pretty things for their own sake.

    As a practicing Christian, Christmas is an important religious festival for me because it's about the central miracle of my faith's story: God coming to live in the fragility of human existence in the most fragile form of all, an infant. And I take that seriously, and celebrate the religious feast with devotion and contemplation.

    But, if I am honest, I also love the secular holiday that has sprung up around it. I love the kitsch and the commercialism and the lights and Santa Claus and the singing and all of it. I think it's a great time of year from a purely secular perspective: people doing nice things for each other and buying presents and thinking of someone other than themselves. People giving themselves over to giddy sentiment

    Yes, it's a giant marketing machine. Yes it displaces genuine affection with the commercial buying of goods. Yes it encourages personal debt. Yes, it concentrates a message of peace and love and understanding to a single six-week shopping period and ignores it the rest of the year. I know the flaws. I know why my friends avoid it, and I respect their wishes.

    But I love it.

    Because at its best, the secular observance of Christmas is season where we put a giant amnesty on being sentimental. Admittedly it's created by a giant cynical ploy to get money, but I'm prepared to look beyond that for now. Christmas is a time to say: it's okay to watch hugely sweet cathartic television and movies, and sing out loud in public, and give cards to friends to say how much you care, and to buy syrupy music that you like just because it sounds nice.

    It's like taking a vacation from good taste, good sense, and good night, what a good time can be had doing that.

    I remember in my Grade 13 Sociology class, our teacher asked us on the Friday before Christmas holidays what our Christmas traditions were. I went to a multicultural school and so the Italian students had their traditions, and so did the Portuguese students and my teacher was Polish. But I remember feeling like I didn't have any traditions. I was middle class, middle-Ontarian, who, as a fourth-generation Canadian didn't have any really clear ancestral heritage (with smatterings of Scottish, Irish, English and a little French Canadian to liven things up). I didn't have midnight mass or proscuito with the turkey or all the things.

    But I think I missed the point: my family, and myself, have lots of Christmas traditions. They're all just pop-cultural as opposed to ethno-cultural. I can't have Christmas without watching A Charlie Brown Christmas every year. I try to watch It's A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street every year when possible. Every Christmas Eve during the day I watch the Atlantis Films adaptation of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales with Denholm Elliot. (When I lived in Britain I was alarmed as I couldn't watch my now-brittle videotape of it—I taped it off PBS in 1988 and remains to be my sole copy—and couldn't find a copy of it anywhere. A friend of mine actually typed it up for me and e-mailed it so I could still read it aloud on Christmas Eve). I often do this while wrapping what presents I have bought to that point. Usually after midnight I watch what counter-programmed movie City-TV airs (and it's usually brilliant— it was Yentl one year, and in a stroke of genius another they aired the Peter Sellers movie The Magic Christian which I think should do every year) and wrap the rest I bought during the day. Several of my good friends have a tradition around the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol but it does nothing for me, sorry.

    And there's music, much of it the sort of thing I would never listen to the other 11 months of the year. One of my favourite Christmas albums is Amy Grant's first Christmas Album. I wouldn't listen to Amy Grant normally unless you tied me up and softened me up a bit by forcing me to watch Three Wishes. And I wouldn't listen to an Amy Grant album from her explicitly 'Christian' phase unless you had added to the experience hot pokers. But I love listening to her sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" more than anything this time of year. I don't own a single new age album, but another of my most treasured Christmas music is a new-age music-style collection of carols (put together by Evangelical Christian musicians—I got it when I was a teenager). \

    And my most favourite Christmas album of all—and I own a lot of them and play them relentlessly by artists ranging from Sammy Davis Jr. to Johnny Cash to John Denver and the Muppets—has to be the Purple Christmas Tape. The Purple Christmas tape isn't actually purple, it's an ordinary Phillips C-60 cassette from around 1967, with purple trim on the inlay card. Back then my Dad recorded (on what was then-cutting edge technology of a cassette recorder) a tape of what he wrote on the inlay card "Christmas Carols & Songs". Side A is a rather pompous sounding choir blustering through familiar carols. Side B—my favourite—is a vocal quartet from the late 1950s called the Four Aces singing Christmas standards. The Four Aces were like the Four Lads except they, um, were Aces instead of Lads. And when I say vocal quartet, I should emphasize these guys weren't into anything too avant-garde like singing in harmony. No, they just sang together to musical arrangements that scream "I was made in 1958", sounding like a cross between the high school glee club and advertising jingles.

    And yet, growing up in the suburbs, the Four Aces were as much a part of my Christmas landscape as the frosted Christmas tree lights and Rudolph visiting the island of misfit toys. My Dad played that tape every year, and I loved it so much I kept it long after it fell out of common use by my family (who kind of glommed onto Boney M around '85; I could never get into them). I'm playing this even now as I write this.

    The Purple Christmas Tape sums up everything I love about Christmas as a secular holiday. There's no earthly reason why I should play it. In every respect it's tacky, inconsequential entertainment. And yet, love it I do, because it has nostalgic and sentimental associations, and because it's Christmas, and I can. After all, there's an amnesty on the tacky and the cheesy, the kitschy and the shallow, the sentimental and the just plain sweet.

    Hallmark bless us, everyone.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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