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:
Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.
In his book Steal Like an Artist (read it, and its companion piece Show Your Work, as fast as you can), Austin Kleon writes about what he calls the creativity in subtraction:
“Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.”
One of my favorite lyricists, the great Lorenz Hart, wrote his song “I Could Write a Book” on a dare, too. Some fool at a dinner party bet him that he couldn’t rhyme “bookends.” Check out the link to see how he did it.
A bet can be a great motivator. Set a goal—whether it’s to use a certain structure in your next creative endeavor or to stretch your comfort zone in a specific way—and make a bet with yourself, or a friend. You never know what brilliance you’ll unleash.