Category Archives: Christmas

Christmas Music – Why it doesn’t work for everyone and why Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas is Still Terrible

I like Christmas music.

If you’ve known me for any length of time, or read the blog for any length of time (hello!) you’ll know I’ve talked about Christmas music before. Heck, I was even immortalized in a comic, sort of, as being really into Christmas music. And you know, a disclaimer, I shit on something pretty hard in this blog post (spoiler: it’s in the title) and I realize it’s a difficult time of year, people take comfort and solace where they can, and going knives-out on something people love isn’t like, delightful of me, but I was literally moved to rush to the computer and write this down, so consider it, at the very least, from the heart, and not just random meanness.

So yeah, Christmas music.

As the world has gotten darker over the past few years (was going to comment on this but I think it’s just a given at this point) it’s taken me longer to get into the Christmas spirit, it’s been harder to enjoy the Christmas music that I used to enjoy playing at the stroke of November 1st every year.

(I mean, Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October–there’s no bullwark between the onslaught of Adult-Christmas, aka Halloween, and Actual Christmas, in Canada.  Though that’s all but disappeared in America too, despite some staunch opposition.)

I happened to be out in a mall yesterday and I heard my first Christmas music in the wild–a cover of the Paul McCartney Wonderful Christmastime–and I realized I rather enjoyed it. So tonight as we were cooking dinner, cleaning our apartment, and just generally living, Andrew and I put on the Spotify Christmas mix “Christmas is Coming.” Not quite digging-out and setting up the more than 5000 Christmas mp3s I have stashed away, but, a nice way to ease into the season.

And that’s where I heard it, Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas, my most hated Christmas song. And readers, it has not improved with age.

Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas is a bad song. It is every single thing wrong with Christmas music, that people who hate Christmas music complain about when they complain about it. The melody is awful, short, repetitive. There’s nothing in the music that places it at Christmas specifically, it doesn’t really fit. It’s not even sing-songy. There’s this wash of strings but then a light supermarket jazz piano is laid over top. They don’t meld, but then, there’s a bunch of things that don’t meld, including his voice which is trying to be an American-accented working-class country, or pop, or rock sort of thing, every kind of popular music appeal amounting to nothing. There’s a way to do this that’s classy, that would elevate the material–imagine Tom Jones on those lyrics, or at least those sentiments, and he’d be so much better. Speaking of those lyrics, they’re saccharine. And not just Christmas Pop Music Saccharine. They take something relateable about the season–driving home from whatever city you’ve moved to, to your hometown to see your family at Christmastime–and turn it into adult contemporary mush, and no, his delivery doesn’t help that part either. He’s wistful for the events that are occurring as they occur in the song, trying to sell you on just how wistful the song is without earning it. It’s less honest about it’s emotional manipulation than Christmas Shoes, and therefore actually worse. It sounds like Muzak. It is the Muzak-version of it’s own song. And the percussion is trite, too.

So I sing for you
Though you can’t hear me
When I get trough
And feel you near me
Driving in my car
I’m driving home for Christmas
Driving home for Christmas
With a thousand memories
– Driving Home for Christmas

And people in the UK fucking love it. And they’ve fallen more in love with it every year.

Released officially in 1998, the single peaked at #54 in the singles charts around Christmastime. It’s been periodically re-released since then, and last year’s 2017 re-release saw it hit #14 on the single’s chart–of all music, not just Christmas music. It’s considered one of the UK’s top-ten Christmas tunes. People love Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas… in the United Kingdom. In Canada and the U.S.A., it’s almost entirely unknown, as is Chris Rea.

There are any number of bits of Christmas music that I deeply love from my childhood, that I listen to to this day, and that set the teeth of my friends entirely on edge. The Boney M Christmas albums are so good, but German R&B and Disco covers of classic religious songs are not for everyone. Likewise my favourite version of Baby It’s Cold Outside is actually the big-band version by Steve and Eydie (Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme) from 1964, the over-the-top acting and huge orchestral sound really selling the innocence of a song that has a lot of otherwise problematic elements. I get liking music, particularly in this genre, that other people hate. A big component of why I like it, and why a lot folks like Christmas music in general, is nostalgia, and the nostalgic colouring of our feelings. The Christmas music of our youth, or a certain time in our life, is going to always help us smooth out any of the problems with a song (or genre!). “Yeah I know it’s cheesy,” we say. “But I can’t help it, I grew up with The Count from Sesame Street singing All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,’ and that’s my version!”

It’s also why there’s so much argument over the best version of Christmas songs–it’s a limited repertoire after all and adding to the Christmas song cannon is difficult as hell. So with very few exceptions, the ‘best’ version of a Christmas song to most folks is the one for which they have the strongest personal connection, either nostalgia, their existing love of the singer, or a version of the song that meant a lot to them. Michael Buble has basically recorded the entire cannon of Christmas songs at this point, and his isn’t the best version of any of them, but even my Mom, who provided all of the music that imprinted on me, who should know better, would still rather listen to him than Dean Martin, or Elvis, or whomever. Even after the atrocity that is Santa, Buddy. Inconceivable. But, here we are.

So it’d be easy to say that it’s just a lack of nostalgia, a lack of early introduction to Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas 30 years ago, that’s preventing me (and, TBH, North America) from appreciating this song that is inescapable in British Christmas celebrations. Except. Except. There is…

SLADE.

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Slade recorded Merry X’Mas Everybody in 1973 and it hit the top of the charts at Christmas. A UK-only release, from a glam rock band, the song has every single component of Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas, done right, and done better, even including being almost entirely unknown outside the UK. I actually didn’t discover it until my mid-20s, on the Warren Ellis forum, where the assorted Brits would talk about deeply loving this song I’d never heard of. Of course, I loved it right away upon finally listening to it, with no nostalgia, no rose-coloured glasses, the exact opposite reaction to Driving.

Merry X’Mas Everybody is about Christmas, yeah, but it also evokes Christmas, and you can’t quite tell is it’s pro-Christmas or anti-Christmas, it presents Christmas as omnipresent, inevitable, inescapable. It ends with a literal scream, IT’S CHRISTMASSSS!, the sort of childish exuberance at 5am Christmas morning that simultaneously lights-up and makes-weary every parent. It’s neither working-class nor upper class, it’s certainly not posh, and it isn’t wallowing in the difficulties of the year, but it also isn’t ignoring them either. The entire song, actually, is surprisingly ambivalent about Christmas, simply stating things that are happening and asking questions. It is drenched in the nostalgia of the season, like Driving, but it’s also self-aware in a way that Rea deliberately avoids. Hell, Rea, manages the line “Driving to Holy Land” to refer to like, his parent’s house, with a straight face, while Slade points out the hypocrisy of your Grandmother, who is up and dancing to contemporary music, including, of course, the song to which you are listening, Slade’s song.

Musically, it’s a solid track. It’s right in the middle of Slade’s oeuvre, with some lovely concessions to the holiday season instrumentally. The singer’s giving it 110%, and the bass line in particularly is great. It’s very of its time of course, but so solid that it’s also a top-10 Christmas hit in the UK still, and gets a ton of radio play.  It’s just on the edge of being a cheesy novelty song (or at least, more of one than all Christmas music), but it legitimately rocks. To my mind its more successful than the other great glam rock Christmas track, Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, which is also similarly exhuberant and joyous but too relentlessly positive, it doesn’t leave room for anything other than agreement. Slade invites you into the madness, Wizzard forces you to comply.

Which brings us back to Driving Home For Christmas. Without the nostalgic attachment, the repetition over decades, it’s failed to make an impression in North America, despite re-releases and its appearance on that Spotify list. As someone who seeks out Christmas music every year it’s made an incredibly negative impression on me though. It’s a bad song, badly performed. People don’t get excited about it (although I imagine the comments section will be perhaps full of angry Brits), but when people do speak of it positively to me, they usually describe it as a respite, a slower and more reflective Christmas standard that you can hum along to, that fades into the background without drawing attention to itself, without making itself obnoxious (or in any way notable) and that negative space in between other more ‘demanding’ Christmas music earns it a lot of points in a season that can feel overwhelming.

I can get behind that. Like I said at the very top, by way of disclaimer, people should find the things that they need, and enjoy them, and for a whole Kingdom that’s the sleepy sweet embrace of Chris Rea’s snowy, traffic-light-filled Christmas tune. But to me, the very best Christmas music, going back to the translated-from-German secular music and even the religious carols, are about observing a time and a place and an event, about the recognition of good (Birth of The Saviour! Trees!) and the bad (freezing to death because of being poor but being saved through the magnanimity of Kings, a somewhat rare occurrence), and about celebration. Stevie Wonder’s One Little Christmas Tree is basically perfect, for example. I could never connect with Rea’s song because, despite literally driving home for Christmas every year, it never felt real to me.  Neither as fake and bouncy as a manufactured Christmas Love Song, nor with the biting realism of the difficulty of the season like Rilo Kiley’s Xmas Cake, it just seemed so middle-of-the road, so self-serious about its mundanity, so lacking in profundity despite its earnestness. Also it fucking sets my teeth on edge. I almost wish I had that same nostalgic lens as many friends to view the song through, so I could save my poor tooth enamel.

Ah well, there’s always The Count to soothe my soul.

  • Christopher Butcher

25 Days of Christmas

Here are some things I like about Christmas, and Christmas things from this year mostly. Pictures and Comics and Songs and things. I’ll keep them all on one post so I don’t push everything else off the front page. I might not update every day, but I’ll have something for every day from the 1st to the 25th. Merry Christmas. 🙂

December 19th: Christmas Lights

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Jon Klassen posted this picture of one of his neighbours’ houses Christmas setups and it’s so, so good. I’m looking forward to getting in the car and driving through the fancy neighbourhoods to look at the lights. 🙂

Also, back when I had cable I was a sucker for those “Most Extreme Christmas Lights Ever!” shows.

Click for a larger version.

December 18th: Office Christmas Party (Kids in the Hall)

Actually now all I can think about are various Kids in the Hall Christmas skits.

December 17th: Did you know Dave Foley from Kids In The Hall did a Christmas Special? Called “The True Meaning of Christmas Specials?”

I DIDN’T KNOW THAT.  I love the straight-up KITH Christmas Special (The Queen and Buddy Cole, I mean honestly), and I had no idea this existed until Dave Foley himself tweeted it, so I don’t feel that terrible about linking it on Youtube.

December 16th: How Many Of These Ways Have You Ruined Christmas?

Have you Hung Stockings By The Chimney Half-Assedly? Donated Blood to Toys for Tots? Or worse? Take this quiz to find out all of the ways you have royally fucked up Christmas over at Clickhole.

December 15th:  Happy Snowflake Day! It’s The Clone High Holiday Special

My favourite contemporary Christmas television special is The Clone High Holiday Special, in which the characters celebrate the just-invented Snowflake Day, casting aside all of the “exclusionary” holiday celebrations that have preceded it.  Today is the day of the first viewing of this contemporary classic, and it gets better every single time I see it.

December 14th: Christmas Cheer

We had a great event at Page & Panel on the 14th, with Jon Klassen, Matt Forsythe, Kyo Maclear, and John Martz at the shop talking about their new picture books. It was fantastically successful, but the best part was getting to hang out and have a drink and a bite to eat with some great folks afterwards. Andrew and I aren’t doing a Christmas Party this year cuz we’re just too busy to organize anything, so getting to socialize and raise a cup of cheer is just that much nicer, that much more important.

The evening before I got to have a very rare drink with Mark Askwith and Jim Zub, shooting the shit and ‘solving comics’ as Jim described, and while I had a few too many, it was just too good of a conversation to leave.

A couple of nice nights.

December 13th: Overwatch Winter Wonderland!

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It’s really, really good you guys. 🙂 I’m playing on PS4 as Comics212 if you want to add me.

December 12th: It’s Andrew’s Birthday!

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My husband Andrew was born today! Hooray! He is literally the first person I’ve encountered with a December birthday whose birthday didn’t get lumped in with Christmas. He is very well adjusted about this, actually. Still, shout out to all the December babies who got a ‘combination Christmas & Birthday gift’, that’s rough.

December 11th: Mariah Carey Wrote The Last Great Christmas Song: Deal With It.

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“In 1994, I wrote the last good Christmas song. Deal with it, world.

“It’s called “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” I wrote it with a man named Walter Afanasieff, who went by the nickname “Baby Love” in the 80s. We won’t speak of him again.

“Back to the song. Not only was I on top of the damn world when I released it, but give it a listen. It’s got bell chimes. I do that “ooooohh hooooo oooooh baby” thing. There are so many octaves. The message that love matters more than gifts connects with everyone in a “nah, not really, but I’m not gonna disagree publicly with it” way.”

Read the whole thing, it’s great: http://www.secondcity.com/mariah-carey-last-good-christmas-song

December 10th: Community Christmas

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I love the Christmas episodes of Community. They’re always the right mix of incredibly heavy and blissfully light. This one struck a chord because I was bullied in school and the school bullies sort of brought that back, but I did love that the characters had each others’ backs. My favourite though is probably the GLEE send-up, though the best is obviously the Claymation one.

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December 9th: Santas by Chris Schweizer!

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Chris Schweizer, the creator of the “Crogan’s” series of graphic novels from Oni Press, came up with this cool idea for a bunch of the historically-informed real and mythical characters that informed our idea of the contemporary Santa Claus. You can buy some of the original art, as well as papercraft versions, at his online store: http://crogan.bigcartel.com/

You can also see his (better) explanation of the project on his Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chris.schweizer.comics/posts/10101571439405027?pnref=story

December 8th: Christmas Eve, 3am

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I made my first Christmas mix CD back in 2003. It was themed around always having to work when I went home for Christmas, because deadlines. Some things never change.

I made an online version for people to download (PIRACY!) and I mailed out burned CDs to some of my friends too. I really massaged the hell out of it too, using a mixing software that had songs smoothly fading into one another, big volume changes to have songs start with a bang (the fanfare at the beginning of Baby It’s Cold Outside was particularly nice next to the jazzy fade on Ella’s Have Yourself…). I was so proud of this, and I think it still holds up.

I actually don’t have a copy of this anymore, James Lucas Jones might have the last copy in existence and was nice enough to send me this photo of it so I could see the track listing. I made a Spotify playlist of it too, so you could listen if you like: https://open.spotify.com/user/christopher.butcher/playlist/2zM1LeB1Vo0YRdXGyjCbqp . Sadly due to the music industry being weird and fucked, a bunch of songs on the list there aren’t on Spotify (although I get that Spotify itself is a sort of shitty service for musicians), so you’ll have to to pause the playlist and insert your own copies of Slade’s MERRY CHRISTMAS to kick things off, and the lovely tension of Bing and Bowie on Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy. It’s not the right version of Anne Murray’s Winter Wonderland either, I need the one from my youth, from the late 70s or early 80s. Ah well. Ah well.

I made maybe 3 or 4 of these mixes over the years, and I always think I’ll make another, and then I never get a chance to because Christmas has gotten too busy to even write these little blog updates, let alone actually spend 4 or 5 hours making the perfect Christmas mix. Maybe one day I’ll get to make another. 🙂

December 7th: Happy Holidays from Overwatch…?

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I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch on PS4 lately. It’s a nice easy way to get out of my own head for a while. I was delighted when I saw this posted, that there’ll be a special holiday event for the game, presumably with Christmas/Holiday-themed outfits for the characters and more. 🙂

December 6th: Michael DeForge and Jillian Tamaki’s Holiday Illustration

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Released on Twitter and apparently printed and posted around the city. Love it. 🙂

December 5th: Krampusnacht

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December 5th is Krampusnacht, or the night of the Krampus, when Santa’s dark twin comes to whip the bad children with a switch, or steal them away. So, you know. This particular Krampus illustration hangs on my wall at home, and it’s by Matt Forsythe. I got it from a Krampus art show in 2010, I think that’s where I maybe met Anne Koyama for real, for the first time? Anyway, she’s great, and Matt’s great, and this illustration is great too.

December 4th: Illumination in Japan

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(Various Tokyo Illumination installations)

I’m not able to go to Japan this Christmas or New Years as I have for the past few years, although I did get a record three trips there this year and I realize how lucky I am for that. I still really miss it though, there’s something about Christmas there that’s very deeply different than here in Canada… but in this instance, I really like their Christmas Lights displays. They call them “illuminations” and they’re all over Tokyo and the biggest cities in Japan. Usually there’ll be 10-15 really high end, remarkable illuminations in Tokyo, with smaller ones dotted throughout the city at department stores and what not. It’s really beautiful, simultaneously over the top without being too gaudy. I used to stare at the lights on our Christmas tree for hours, back when I was a kid (and a teen), and this is like that but writ large across my favourite city.

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The reason I thought of this today was because I bumped into my friend Robin Nishio, who IS planning a trip through Japan for the last half of December. I told him that the best thing I saw at Christmas time in Japan was probably “Lumiere”, the Kobe illumination display. It was and is a marvelous installation of lights, up and down the main streets of Kobe, nearly a kilometre long and ending in a giant part with huge structures seemingly comprised of nothing but light. It was a tradition begun following the great Kobe earthquake, an attempt to show the rest of Japan that Kobe was resilient, was rebuilding, and that they should come and support the city. Citizens and government banded together to create this and it added an amazing, poignant air to the already beautiful and affecting display. I was grinning ear to ear until it finally overwhelmed me and I teared up. It’s one of my favourite experiences and memories of Japan. I’m grateful to Emi and Graeme for showing it to me.

December 3rd: Christmas at Retail

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Despite working in retail for most of my adult life, I actually really love how all-out retail establishments will go to celebrate Christmas and the holidays. Sure, it’s in the service of consumerism and capitalism, but if we can get stunning, beautiful things like this because people are encouraged to spend more, I’m personally willing to take that trade-off. This also marked a rare instance for Andrew and I to go and take in a little holiday spirit together, and that was lovely too.

December 2nd: Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time

On her Facebook, my friend Liz Clayton is holding here annual(?) Wonderful Christmastime Challenge. The rules for the challenge are simple, as Liz explains: “You enter by simply existing and lose by hearing this terrible song while just trying to go about your peaceable business. Covers count. Humming or someone singing it to knock you out does not count. Your goal is to survive unscathed for as long as you can: contest begins at 12:01am EST Thursday, November 17, one week before Thanksgiving.”

Andrew and I were both knocked out of the running on December 1st, basically the first real day of Christmas music. Me, earlier in the day, when I put on a spotify playlist that I was _sure_ didn’t include the song, and then him, later, as we stood in line at Shopper’s Drug Mart after an otherwise lovely evening out.

I used to truly hate this song, and it’s repetitive, droning nature. I’ve softened on it a lot of over the years though, as its early-days synthesizer noises are actually kind of incredible, and it doesn’t sound much like any other piece of Christmas pop that there is. It also doesn’t implore or demand anything of its listener (other than ‘Don’t Look Down’ at one point). It’s not telling you to deck anything, to carol, or warning you to watch out. It’s just Paul and the crew sitting around singing about how much fun they’re having, and that’s not so bad, is it?

I mean, it’s still a little bad.

December 1st: The STYLE Christmas Comic

Style Webcomic #2 - © Bryan Lee O'Malley

Once upon a time I lived with Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of Scott Pilgrim, and this other guy, and we used one of the rooms in the house for our office. It housed all of our computers. I was kind of poor, so I had a pair of hand-me-down speakers for my computer and no headphones, wheras Bryan and Other Guy both had pretty bitch’n headphones. So it made sense to me that I could just play the music I wanted because they couldn’t hear it anyway. About the time Christmas rolled around and I started listening to Christmas music 24 hours a day, I was informed that my music could in fact be heard, and was in fact intolerable.

That did not deter me. So Bryan made me a comic strip.

I still consider it a tribute, rather than a threat.

I posted this on Twitter on December 1st, at like 12:30am, and I was susprised how many people had never seen it, despite posting it here annually for a few years. A good reminder that if I ever start writing here regularly again, it’ll be to a bunch of new people. And I’ll be able to reuse a lot of old material. 😉

…more to come.

I’ll be in Japan for Christmas

Hey there. I’ll be in Japan from November 18 through December 29. Andrew will be there with me for the latter half of that. We’re both very excited.

I’m very fortunate to have worked this out with my employer at The Beguiling at the beginning of this year, and while the timing is awful, it’s never not going to be awful and so I’m pressing on.

I know it seems overly audacious to assume anyone gives a whirl about my travel plans, but since I know a bunch of people almost entirely online, and since this is unprecedented, I thought I’d make a brief note. I’m hoping to get a chance to write some more, and to relax, and maybe improve my terrible Japanese language ability a little. I’ll still be answering e-mails, but I probably won’t make it to your Christmas party.

Don’t worry, I’ll take pictures.

Thanks for your understanding and for not hating me,

– Christopher

Remember, Remember, the First of December [repost]

Style Webcomic #2 - © Bryan Lee O'Malley

Once upon a time I lived with Bryan Lee O’Malley and this other guy, and we used one of the rooms in the house for our office. It housed all of our computers. I was kind of poor, so I had a pair of hand-me-down speakers for my computer and no headphones, wheras Mal and Other Guy both had pretty bitch’n headphones. So it made sense to me that I could just play the music I wanted because they couldn’t hear it anyway. About the time Christmas rolled around and I started listening to Christmas music 24 hours a day, I was informed that my music could in fact be heard, and was in fact intolerable.

That did not deter me. So Bryan made me a comic strip.

I still consider it a tribute, rather than a threat.

– Christopher