Kitsch—it’s what’s for Christmas. I’m exaggerating, but only a little, and not about the thing with the idling car. Some people just can’t get enough kitsch—cocoon themselves in it, even—especially around the holidays. Milan Kundera once said that kitsch is the denial of feces (he put it a bit more coarsely, actually), but it’s not clear whether he meant that people who treasure kitsch envision a world with no fecal consequences (just think—you wouldn’t have to devein shrimp!), or if love of kitsch is simply the refusal to believe that anything cute can somehow be without aesthetic merit.
But look around you! Dogs with strap-on antlers peer woebegone from endless rows of holiday greeting cards, clusters of lifeless eyes following you around the store like so many outsized spiders. A crescent of chemical frost riming the window of every convenience store is meant to suggest that the wayward traveler’s quest for a six-pack and microwaveable burrito has led him to the door of a snowy mountain inn, where his health and fellowship will also be toasted by a brace of stout, bearded men who have just finished scaling the Eiger. A three-quarter scale animatronic Santa jerks and lurches on a busy sidewalk, its computer chip programmed with a three-point St. Vitus’s dance intended to convey jollity, which it does as only the action of an automaton can. Which is to say scarily. Yet no one flees in terror. They laugh and point and jostle their toddlers to the fore, heedless of any ontological crisis this new terror might provoke in minds not yet sufficiently benumbed by holiday artifice to distinguish between the real specter who crawls down chimneys distributing presents and the fake ones, the false idols. Tell me again: What does any of this have to do with the baby Jesus?
To survey the seasonal consumer hysteria that goes along with nostalgic sleigh-rides and roasting chestnuts, it’s easy to conclude that the holiday season in its present form is simply an irradiated plastic exoskeleton accreted around the Christian tradition that long ago supplanted what was originally a pagan solstice celebration. For people with a sense of irony, kitsch permits them to at least cope with the unlikelihood of finding this modern pageant of ritual, comforting illusions and diverting spectacles in any way satisfying or discursive of genuine meaning.
It’s OK to be a little cynical about all the Christmas hoop-tee-doo—I mean, how can you not be? So grab ye a mug of hot powdered eggnog and curl up around the plastic tree while Dad stacks the Victrola with that most odious of musical genres—the Christmas novelty tune—to get us all in the mood.
“White Christmas” (Bing Crosby) Not a novelty tune per se, it’s more like a sick joke if you know about Bing Crosby. Few people seem to realize that the dulcet voice behind the most popular recording of this seasonal schmaltzfest belonged to a man who used to make his kids wear underwear around their neck if they didn’t put their clothes away. A man who referred to one of his four sons as “Bucket Butt” and “Satchel Ass,” another as “Ugly” and/or “Stupid,” and a third as “The Head” for his biggish noggin. Bing hounded them mercilessly to sing and dance and then dressed them down viciously in front of his celebrity pals for not getting their dance routines right. When they really did something wrong, he beat them with a metal-studded leather belt. And for this Life magazine once named him “incontestably the No. 1 Big Family Man of Hollywood.”
Two of the Crosby kids, Dennis and Lindsay, killed themselves less than 18 months apart, Lindsay two weeks before Christmas in 1989. One imagines the cactus-hearted crooner taking the news with highball in hand, one white-slacked leg folded over the other, blue eyes placid with evil satisfaction, still dreaming of a white Christmas.
“Jingle Bells” (The Singing Dogs) There exists an album of music performed by an ensemble of elephants in a Thai nature park who play xylophones with big mallets held in their trunks. According to one park employee, the elephants have a remarkable sense of rhythm. So why do elephants pounding on vibes with tree-trunks sound so much more appealing than dogs barking out “Jingle Bells?” Perhaps it’s the unadventurous material—I much prefer the canines’ early recordings of The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. (Just kidding—no such thing.)
Like many Christmas novelty tunes, “Jingle Bells” as performed by the Singing Dogs (full accreditation should actually read: “Don Charles presents the Singing Dogs directed by Carl Weissman”) is quite a bit older than you might think. According to the mistletunes.com website, the song was originally recorded in 1955, when—to its credit—it was a lot harder to do something like this than it is today. “Jingle Bells” required its creators to record hundreds of hours of dogs barking, then run the usable parts through a variable-speed oscillator to get the right pitches, then edit the tape down to make it fit with the rhythm and backing track. Nowadays you can do this with the cheapest Casio keyboard that has a dog’s bark programmed into its sound bank. Ruff ruff ruff! Ruff ruff ruff! Ruff ruff ruff ruff ruff! The original Singing Dogs release featured “Jingle Bells” in a medley with “Three Blind Mice” and the “Pat-a-cake” song. The present version dates from 1971.
“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” (Gayla Peevey) This novelty hit gave Columbia Records the idea to launch a media campaign to round up nickels and dimes from American schoolchildren to actually buy performer Gayla Peevey a hippopotamus for Christmas in 1953. The drive reportedly brought in $3,000 in just 13 days, and 10-year-old Peevey was presented with a year-and-a-half-old Nile hippo named Matilda, which she promptly donated to the Oklahoma City Zoo. Matilda lived to age 48 and gave birth to nine offspring sired by the zoo’s resident male hippo, Norman, before dying in March, 1998, en route to her new home at Walt Disney World in Florida.
“Feliz Navidad” (Jose Feliciano) It just wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing “Feliz Navidad,” that brain-burrowing gift to seasonal radio programmers from former Argentinean teen idol (and current Spokane resident!) Jose Feliciano. But a guy can still try. Every holiday season, I like to play a little cloak-and-dagger game with this bilingual chestnut, trying to see how close to Christmas Eve I can come without actually hearing this song. My record is three days, though most years I never make it half that close without being picked off by the proverbial assassin’s bullet in the toiletries aisle of the supermarket or some similarly humiliating place. Foiled again! Happily, I have a plan B that covers this contingency: The song is much more enjoyable if you pretend he’s singing “Please, naughty dog” with a heavy accent. “Feliz Navidad” celebrates its 30th birthday this year! If you want to know what else is shaking with Feliciano, you can check in at www.josefeliciano.com.
“Mele Kalikimaka” (Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters) Jose Feliciano isn’t the only one to bring a splash of ethnic color to the holiday village. This chirpy musical postcard dates back to 1950, when Bing Crosby and frequent collaborators the Andrews Sisters (they recorded 46 songs together) capitalized on America’s postwar infatuation with its island dependents with a new linguistic spin on an old yuletide salutation. “Mele Kalikimaka” really does mean “Merry Christmas” in Hawai’ian, although it’s unclear just when the expression was widely adopted by the islands’ polytheistic Polynesian stock, whose numbers were reduced from roughly a million to less than 40,000 after contact with European and American whalers, missionaries and explorers.
The Hawai’ian language has eight consonants and 10 vowel sounds. The number of native speakers plummeted to less than 2,000 in the mid 1970s, when the language was still officially outlawed, but has since bounced back, thanks to successful language education programs.
“Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer” (Elmo & Patsy) New additions to the canon of Christmas novelty classics are rare as hen’s teeth, but this one has been a contender ever since San Francisco veterinarian Elmo Shropshire stumbled across a bizarre cautionary tale involving grandmothers and egg nog, written by his friend Randy, while moonlighting in a bluegrass band. An early version of the song (by Shropshire and his enigmatic partner Patsy) was picked up and released by UK label Stiff Records, home at various career stages to Elvis Costello, the Damned, Nick Lowe, Madness and Motörhead. It was eventually re-recorded and widely distributed in the United States, where it became a seasonal hit despite protests by demonstrators who found it “ageist” and defamatory—to old people, not reindeer.
“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” (David Seville and the Chipmunks) Californian David Bagdasarian (who later changed his last name to Seville) was just another tape jockey messing around with quarter-inch reels when a 1959 mishap changed his life—and the sound of Christmas—forever. Accidentally playing a tape back at the wrong speed, Bagdasarian decided that the sped-up voices sounded exactly like, you guessed it, “chipmunks,” and hit on the idea of recording a series of novelty records. The Chipmunks’ Christmas song became a hit for the Liberty label in 1959 and inspired a rash of soundalikes. It also arguably prepared the world for the Bee Gees.
Naturally, there will always be folks who would rather listen to a coffee can getting run through a meat-grinder than anything by this rodent equivalent of the prefab boy-band. Bob Rivers is one of them. Capitalizing on a growing climate of anti-Chipmunk unrest, the satirist recorded “Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire.” Fair’s fair.