After more than two decades as a professional writer, I’ve come to the conclusion that some words carry so much power that they can erase people’s short-term memories. “Christmas” is one of those words. And the song “We Need a Little Christmas” serves as Exhibit A.
It’s from Mame, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. We’re introduced to the title character as a high-flying member of 1920s New York society. But then the stock market crashes in late October 1929 and she loses everything. Not being one to dwell in negativity, Mame throws a party and decorates the house for the most festive holiday she can think of:
Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
and a few lines later:
It hasn’t snowed a single flurry,
But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry;
These are what we call clues. Clues that it is not, in fact, Christmas. Yet singers of all stripes trot this song out at Christmastime. Drives me crazy. The lyric
We need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
makes no sense on December 21st. I mean, what? You can’t hold off for four more days? Three if you celebrate on Christmas Eve.
A Little Christmas & Valentine’s Day, Too
Why, you may be wondering, am I ranting about this in October? I recently ran across a video of an indie folksinger doing a very lovely rendition of the song—at a Christmas party. I’m not linking to her video here because Lord knows she’s far from the only performer who’s ever sung the song in December.
Besides—give the audience what they want. Audiences hear the word “Christmas” and they expect to hear the song at Christmas.
Same thing with “My Funny Valentine.” That’s also from a show—Babes in Arms, music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It’s been a long time since that show premiered in 1937, so most people don’t know that Valentine is the name of the male romantic lead in the show.
But the closing line contains one of those phrases that obliterates all that’s gone before. When the ingénue in the show sings
Each day is Valentine’s day
she’s talking about her devotion to the dude named Valentine. Not about the holiday around which this song has become inescapable.
Honestly, if I could time-travel back to 1936, I would shake Larry Hart by the shoulders—hard—and say, “Don’t do it, man! If you name your character ‘Valentine,’ your lovely ballad will become an oversung, saccharine piece of mush.”
Sadly, until someone loans me a souped-up DeLorean or a standard-issue Tardis, we’ll all just have to learn to live with “My Funny Valentine” on, you know, that day. And “We Need a Little Christmas” every freaking December.
But since it’s October, the song is seasonally appropriate. So enjoy your song for a Sunday:
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For me, Easter is not about the bunnies, it’s about the other stuff. You know, the Jesus stuff, the church stuff.
But the bunnies have arrived, hopping around in my yard, driving the dog in-freaking-sane. And I’m amazed at their timing: Easter weekend. Hippity-hop.
I haven’t seen any of the little ones yet, but the midsize models careening around my yard are lithe, all muscle and fur. With the windows closed, Fenway can’t catch their scent. But when they’re open, she interrupts my day with barks that make a doberman seem tame. So far the bunnies and my client calls aren’t on the same schedule.
Song for a Sunday
Here’s your song for a Sunday, complete with seasonal dance. “The Bunny Hop” may well be the first dance I ever learned; it was a favorite of my grandmother and ancient aunts. Still haven’t seen the real bunnies in my yard form a chain like that. Or wear a poodle skirt. Maybe they save that stuff for unwinding in their burrows, after hours.
Anyway, happy Easter for those of you who celebrate, and for the rest of you—hoppy Sunday.
This has been a “bah, humbug!” season for many of us, but the Pentatonix Christmas album—subtly titled Pentatonix Christmas—managed to make me smile so much I actually put up my Christmas tree. (Here’s a link to the album on Spotify.)
The opening track, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” is just pure happiness in a bottle. Forget the lyrics—I’m not trying to shove Christmas down your throat; Mike Pence will do that soon enough. I suspect this may become my go-to track on those mornings when it’s hard to get out of bed. It’s impossible to hear that beat and not move.
The group has released a video of the song, but YouTube won’t let me embed it here. The best I can do is a link. Do yourself a favor: watch the video or listen to the recording.
From Pentatonix Christmas to Dylan Thomas’s
I found another source of joy Tuesday night. This is my first real Christmas in New England and when I walked into the 120-year-old cottage that passes for my neighborhood’s branch of the town library, I thought I’d stumbled on an old Cabot Cove set from Murder, She Wrote. A group of local actors read A Child’s Christmas in Wales and in between sections of the story a small choir led us in Christmas carols. It didn’t hurt that one of the actors reading Dylan Thomas’s densely evocative language is himself Welsh.
Again, I don’t think it matters what (if any) religion you practice. The Thomas piece isn’t about theology, it’s about a sense of place and memory. And the language, oh my goodness, the language draws you in from the first paragraph:
“One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” -James Baldwin
But in this quotation, it’s like he’s showing me what the world looks like from my eyes—or at least looked like. If I hadn’t been a voracious reader as a kid, my world would have been much smaller and more confusing. Reading allowed me to “go” places and “meet” people. It got me out of the bubble I lived in, long before I was old enough to break free of it myself.
The truth is, reading is the most wonderful, subversive thing you can do for yourself. It can show you infinite possibilities. And no one can take that knowledge away from you.
What I read today
I still read, of course; it’s the other half of my work as a writer. Mostly I read nonfiction and periodicals (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harvard Business Review, the occasional Sports Illustrated). I joke that the only way I know I’m on vacation is if I’m reading a novel.
Yesterday, I wrote about my holiday plans: mostly work, very little play. But Mr. Baldwin reminds me that I can travel without leaving my reading chair. So I’m going to commit to reading two fiction books during the holidays: One will be MB Caschetta’s story collection Pretend I’m Your Friend (I don’t have to pretend—she is my friend). I’m open to suggestions for a novel, so comment away.
Summer + holidays = memories, and so we hop into the wayback machine.
Parlez-vous “French dressing”?
I was well past 30 before I could handle French dressing on my salad.
Nothing against the French—although a history teacher I had in England taught us that “the French are always revolting.” (He presented it as a mnemonic for 19th century history, but somehow I think the comment was meant to be more all-encompassing than that.) No, my avoidance of French dressing had nothing to do with les enfants de la patrie and everything to do with one particular Irish-American. Namely my mother.
My mother was not what you’d call a cook. This is a woman who, given a huge freestanding KitchenAid blender as a wedding gift, sat the machine in a corner of the kitchen and used it as a filing cabinet. Whenever you needed an important document, you’d find it in the mixing bowl.
My mother abandoned her wifely cooking duties as soon as she saw an out—passing them to my father when I was about 13. From that point on, the only thing I remember her making was reservations.
Which is why it was so odd that my mother managed to find herself in charge of one of the major social events of the summer: the club’s annual steak dinner. Steak—well, that was straightforward enough, and the men took charge of grilling it. The rest of the menu was my mother’s domain: Potato salad—50 or so pounds of potatoes that my cousin and I boiled and pared while still steaming, mixed with dozens of pounds of chopped onions. Cole slaw (someone else must have made that, or I’d surely have indelible memories of chopping cabbage). And salad—topped with my mother’s special “French dressing.”
I put that in quotation marks so as not to offend the good people of France. “French dressing” as translated by my mother was a proprietary blend of two ingredients: ketchup and mayonnaise. (All together now: Merde!)
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with combining ketchup and mayonnaise. I know (and love) people who can think of nothing tastier in which to dip their French fries. And more power to ’em. But they call their concoction “ketchup and mayonnaise”—which, remarkably enough, it is. They don’t impugn an entire nationality, nor do they pretend it belongs on salad.
So that’s what passed for globalization back in the last quarter of the 20th century: “French” dressing, made by an Irish-American, served up to a bunch of New Englanders. We’ve come a long way, baby. Happy 4th.
With the July 4th holiday upon us, I thought I’d investigate a word we Americans often use liberally around this time of year—and a word we don’t completely understand.
Is it a noun? Is it a verb? Yes. And how do we spell it? Barbecue, barbeque—the Aussies, who would rather do it than figure out how to spell it, stick with “barby” or “barbie.”
Where does it come from? The OED says Haiti; other sources propose that native people of what is now Florida invented it. Wikipedia doesn’t source that delicious fact, but if true it would make good ol’ BBQ a proto-American invention. Columbus found the natives roasting meat on sticks as far back as 1492, apparently.
I am neutral in the barbeque sauce wars; I don’t like any of them,. But I will defend your right to enjoy your smoked and/or roasted and/or grilled meat with whatever dressings you like. I guess you could say I’m pro-choice.
Just remember as you barbeque your barbeque that it’s both a noun and a verb. As is, I suppose, “hot dog”—my own favorite Fourth of July fare.