“Oh my / friends I’ve / begun to worry right.”
What you might know about me: I’m a bizarre sort of perfectionist and I frequently feel guilty, whether I have a reason to or not. Despite my knowing that I’m not Atlas, that the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders, I walk around hunched like it does. Like if I don’t hold it all together, everything will start to fall—at least my corner of it will—and it will be nobody’s fault but my own.
Every year, I make myself wait until after Thanksgiving dinner to listen to Christmas music. Then I stop as of Dec. 26. I’m a big fan of Pandora, and my favorite two holiday stations are based off of Sufjan Stevens and Bing Crosby, respectively. While Sufjan’s “Sister Winter” is probably my choice song for the season—aside from the traditional “O Holy Night,” which I’ll take in any form—perhaps the song I most look forward to is an outtake of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters singing “Jingle Bells.”
I first came across the song in my Pandora shuffle a couple years back, and I’ve since sought it out. My Secret Santa at the office got me an MP3 download of it last year. The song moves along like a normal take on the tune, but there’s a hiccup here and there in the timing. You can tell Bing Crosby is sort of giving up after a while, because he throws in a joking “Yeah!” at one point after a flubbed cue, and as the wheels fall all the way off the cart, he sings “Holy Jesus Christ!”—prompting an “Urk!” from one of the sisters.
Sufjan sings: “All my / friends I’ve / returned to Sister Winter. / All my / friends I / apologize, apologize.”
Bing Crosby is calling out to Jesus flippantly, but I like the element it adds to the effort, like a sheepish plea to the original manger-born inspiration behind the ancient carols that have since given way to more generic winter melodies and lyrics.
Some church music has an odd history. There are hymns that actually began as drinking songs, freshened up with new lyrics. “What Child is This?” is set to the tune of “Greensleeves,” which was a slang term for a prostitute—or at least a woman willing to lie down in the grass, getting stains on her clothes.
The history and evolution of sacred music, the way it intertwines with popular music, is messy and surprising.
It’s not perfect.
I like that.
I didn’t realize until recently that one of the signs of the season for me is hearing a song that wasn’t intended to be heard. An outtake. A mistake.
I look forward to hearing it in my random shuffle of holiday music, even though it’s technically flawed. It’s profane, in the literal sense of the word. And yet.
The awe and wonder of this time of incarnation isn’t dimmed. Atlas can indeed shrug*. The plan, after all, was not for a baby to be born in a stall intended for livestock.
Sufjan sings: “And my / friends I’ve / returned to wish you all the best! And my / friends I’ve / returned to wish you a happy Christmas!”
* I can’t stand Ayn Rand by the way. At all. It’s a “Wonderful Christmastime”-level can’t standing.