For some, the holidays can be, as the kids say, a lot.
The enforced good cheer that some might not feel, the estrangement from family, the pressure to provide a “perfect” Christmas for loved ones. As a friend once opined, not even in a particularly Grinchy manner, “Christmas is a bit like ’Hey Jude’ — wonderful if you ran into it about once every five years at half the length.”
But there are little bits of culture, odd takes on Christmas, that can make those who have trouble with the holiday feel a little less alone.
These are holiday things that are good and weird and yet have endured. Let us celebrate these strange Christmas artifacts.
“A John Waters Christmas.” A sweet and funny man with a refined sense of the truly junky, cult film director and “pope of trash” Waters is the perfect guy to anthologize bizarre carols, as in this 2004 compilation album, each one more surreal than the last. Ukulele-toting Tiny Tim chirping "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and the Chipmunks' "Sleigh Ride" are far and away the most obvious. Marvel at such jaw-dropping oddities as Roger Christian's orphan-centered "I Wish You a Merry Christmas," which tells us the over-the-top story of a modern Tiny Tim (the Dickens one) named Mary Christmas: "She told her friends, 'Now, just any day!'/With her crutches she'd stand in that adoption line/but the folks never seemed to look her way." Yow.
Little Cindy contributes "Happy Birthday Jesus (A Child's Prayer)." To wit: "(Mama) ’splained how bad they hurt you/those awful naughty men/but said you let them do it/for girls like me would sin/She said about the manger they took and put you in/I'd let you have my blanket/if I was here back then." Eminem, eat your heart out.
Waters also has great taste in R&B. The doo-wop "Christmas Time Is Here" by Stormy Weather and Rita Faye Wilson's "Sleigh Bells Reindeer and Snow" are perfect pop, but Big Dee Irwin and Little Eva's "I Wish You a Merry Christmas" is a banger.
And then there's the fantastic "Santa Claus Is a Black Man" by Akim and the Teddy Vann Production Company. I’ll provide no details for this one; know merely that it is one of the best Christmas songs of the past 50 years, and you should listen.
Incidentally, Waters will be in Austin on Sunday, bringing his one-man show — also titled “A John Waters Christmas” — to the Paramount Theatre.
"Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. One of the oddest musical moments of a very odd decade, this tune was first heard on Nov. 30, 1977, as part of "Bing Crosby's 42nd Annual Christmas Special." Crosby, who had been dead more than a month when this aired, and Bowie — whose druggy, sepulchral thinness indicated he might have been as well — crooned a mutant medley of these two songs.
“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” A movie that both has to be seen to be believed and has stuck around in the Christmas underground (if you will) for so long that it has become a twisted classic. Shot in two weeks(!) in 1964, it’s known for a few things: featuring an 8-year old Pia Zadora as a Martian child, being the first appearance on any screen of Mrs. Claus (played here by Doris Rich) and remaining absolutely bonkers.
Long story short: Mars needs Santa, apparently (though some Martians disagree most vehemently). Most ‘90s kids learned about it from “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” an episode which is considered a stone classic, but one is urged to regard it one’s self (or perhaps play it for friends for home riffing).
“The Star Wars Holiday Special.” Much more has been written about the holiday special now than at the time it was released. Commentary on this thing is rich on the ground (or internet), but I will say this: The thing that is wonderful about the holiday special is that it treats “Star Wars” not as a science-fantasy hero’s journey for our time, not as a secular religion, not as an arm of Planet Disney but as just another franchise out of which as much money needed to be squeezed as humanly possible. This is “Star Wars” at its cheapest looking, its most earthbound. Respect is due (and since the Mandalorian mentioned Life Day on his self-titled Disney+ show, I guess it’s maybe still canon).
“It’s a Bad Brains Christmas, Charlie Brown.” The time: late November or early December 2012 (records are unclear). The uploader: a Vimeo user known only as "Tad Was Here." The video: one of the greatest video mashups of all time, sped-up and deftly edited clips from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” set to hardcore punk progenitors Bad Brains’ debut single “Pay To (Expletive).”
A lot of things come together to make this truly wonderful:
• The “Peanuts” gang jumping around looks pretty, well, exactly like kids dancing by themselves, yet enraptured, at a punk show.
• Lucy gets most of the singing, and man alive, if there is one “Peanuts” character who absolutely would have ended up doing time as a hectoring, didactic hardcore frontperson, it’s Lucy van Pelt.
• Charlie Brown, appropriately, ends up getting the last word: “At peace together/apiece apart a piece of wisdom/from our HEARTS!” Perfect.
“Klaus” by Grant Morrison and Dan Morra (Boom Studios). The American comic book, born as it was around the same time (1938) as the Great Depression was about to give rise to one of the greatest economic and therefore consumer booms in human history, has always delivered pretty good Christmas content. After all, the very first comic book story to feature (a somewhat unformed) Uncle Scrooge McDuck, one of the best characters in all of comics, was “Christmas on Bear Mountain” in 1947. There are sweet, fun Christmas stories all over comics, but our benighted decade has yielded one all-time classic.
You didn’t think Santa needed a somewhat gritty, quasi-Viking/barbarian fantasy origin story, did you? Neither did I. We were both wrong. “Klaus” is wonderful, a pitch-perfect fantasy of a traveling trapper arriving in a kingdom under the rule of a cruel despot, who has essentially outlawed joy. This is one of Morrison’s most emotionally complete works; no wonder he and Morra have revisited it every Christmas with a yearly special.
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and hang in there.