Saturday, November 15, 2008

Christmas Songs in Films and Internet

So here is one of the great ethical questions of the ages: when is it okay to start listening to Christmas Carols?
My older brother, Daryl, had very strict views on this subject. It was his opinion that Christmas albums should not be played until after Thanksgiving dinner. He would guard the stereo lest Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time” or Robert Goulet’s “Let It Snow” touched our ears before pumpkin pie hit the gullet.
Department stores take a different tack. Throughout my life, it seems I’ve heard complaints about how this year the mall has Christmas decorations up and music playing earlier than ever before. But it always seems to be the day after Halloween they make the change from orange and black to red and green.
For quite a few years now I’ve found myself listening to Christmas music even earlier. Usually in September I need to start writing a Christmas program and I find I need some Yule to get the juice flowing.
On occasion I’ve even put in Christmas movies early to get me in the mood. Of course, when I was growing up it was unthinkable that you could watch Miracle on 34th Street in the fall (though strangely, it was originally released in May, 1947.) But then videos and then DVDs came along, and we were no longer at the mercy of theater and television programmers.
My brother Dale and I would watch White Christmas most Christmas eves. Dale would not go to bed until (spoiler) the General was saluted by his men. There were a number of musicals that I sat through waiting for a particular song.
That kind of waiting is no longer necessary. Not only do we have fast forward buttons and chapter searches on DVD players, we have Youtube on the internet. As I was preparing for this article I found all five of my favorite Christmas songs from movies on that site ( ).
The easiest to find was “White Christmas.” Bing Crosby’s version of this song was the best selling song of all time for decades and is still the best selling Christmas song. I watched the version with Marjorie Reynolds from Holiday Inn (1942). It’s not exactly a big production number. Just Bing and Marjorie at the piano. The fanciest piece of choreography is Crosby hitting the tiny Christmas tree bells with his pipe.
The song evokes a longing for the Christmas of long ago, of childhood. (Amazingly it does so for this native Californian who has only experienced two white Christmases – visiting in-laws in Indiana and when an airline mishap took us to my brother’s in Minnesota Christmas night.)
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You can also find the two versions of the song from 1954’s White Christmas on Youtube. (Or you can see that film on a much bigger screen at the Raven Theater December 14 at 6 PM.)
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One of the most popular Christmas songs to be found online is Judy Garland’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis. This isn’t a Christmas film really. December 25th is just one of the dates it touches on as in follows a turn-of the-century (19th to 20th ) family through a year. This song is more than tinged with melancholy, urging the listener to enjoy Christmas this year, because the future…well, you know… you can’t trust it.
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I wasn’t sure I would find my next favorite Christmas song from a film on Youtube, but it was there. (Should I have doubted? Any service that can provide not one but many videos of monkeys doing karate should not be doubted.) That is Zooey Deschanel’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from Elf.
I would have my doubts that this song, about a couple having difficulty splitting up on a winter’s evening, is really a Christmas song. But since the song is found on Christmas albums, and I’ve heard it on K-Love in December, it must be so.
In the film, Zooey is singing the song in the shower, and is quite surprised when Will Ferrell joins in from just outside the curtain. Like the songs mentioned above, this too is a song of longing, but of a romantic variety.
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Most all of the songs from the musical version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Scrooge, can be found online. My favorite is “Thank You Very Much,” in which the people of London in Christmas-Yet-To-Come join together to thank Scrooge for very kindly passing away. The song is sung as a reprise at the end of the film after Scrooge dies in a different way. He arguably dies to self and is born again.
There is a kind of longing in this song as well. A longing for a time when people will treat others with love and respect and forgiveness.
One thing that struck me as I was viewing these songs on-line was how few of them had anything to do with the birth of Jesus. To find that, I had to find versions of “Hark, the Harold Angels Sing”. Even then, when the song is sung at the conclusion of It’s a Wonderful Life, it seems only used to acknowledge Clarence, George Bailey’s guardian angel. Much more gusto goes into singing “Auld Lang Syne”.
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Only in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (sections also available on Youtube) do the singers seem to give any thought to the meaning of that great hymn written by Charles Wesley. That God took on human form to be our Savior.
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So there you have it: five great Christmas songs from movies that you don’t have to wait for. You don’t have to wait for the films to turn up on TV the last weeks of December. You don’t have to wait in line at the video store or for Netflix to deliver. You don’t ever have to wait through the movie for that favorite song to appear.
Which is a little unfortunate.
Because Advent (which is Latin for “Coming”) is all about waiting. Traditionally, it has been the time where the church expectantly prepared for the celebration of Christ’s nativity. God knows that waiting can do us good.
He had a purpose for informing His people that a Messiah was coming, though it was centuries until those prophecies would be fulfilled. Even when Jesus was born, it would be years before people would see how that baby wrapped in swaddling clothes could be the Savior of the world.
So maybe there is something to be said for my brother zealously guarding the stereo until after the Detroit Lions played. Or those European traditions of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve.
We need to understand the longing that comes with the more melancholy aspects of Christmas. Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. You did come before. We anxiously await your return.

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