Staff List: Songs of Christmas

The Bureau Staff digs up the best and worst renditions of their favorite Christmas carols.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

The idea of Christmas is way better than the actual event, right? The idea of Christmas: twinkle lights and Reese’s trees! The event: cleaning for relatives and arguing with my family about how wasteful wrapping paper is. So, why, although I know this, do I still feel warmth when I see It’s a Wonderful Life? Hear a Salvation Army bell? Because I refuse to accept what Christmas truly is to give myself a sincere hope for the future year, for the state of the world, no matter how cheesy and incorrect I know the sentiment to be.

This is why “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is my favorite holiday jam. The song was originally performed by Judy Garland’s character in Meet Me In St. Louis to comfort her little sister in the face of impending family drama. To me, this song perfectly captures the “I’m nostalgic and I know it — but for the sake of my mental health” attitude that comes with December 25th.

The original gets me every time. Garland’s performance is so tragic. Knowing that she attempted suicide not long after this film was made makes the song all the more heartbreaking.

I hate this cover—why is it all sexy, mysterious? EW—WHY A JAZZ SAX? I did enjoy the only comment though. Plus, check out 0:54 for sudden creepy eyes!

— Writer Alice Stanley

“Christmas Time is Here”

“I think there must be something wrong with me,” Charlie Brown muses in his eponymous special. “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Not optimistic, but it’s a common experience, especially when confronted with the season’s garish soundtrack. Christmas music is a forced march towards joy, the dream that treacle and major chords can make the coldest, darkest part of the year the happiest. The only respite from this jingle parade is the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s reserved “Christmas Time is Here.”

It’s melancholy and slow, the gentle melody overshadowed by the children harmonizing it. The lyrics tenderly describe a winter landscape, but don’t give the listener a place in it. On repeat it slips into the background. Nobody sings along. This song is a fireside, not a party, and it’s the only Christmas song that legitimizes the holiday as I’ve come to know it: walking through the decorated world and not knowing quite what to do with it.

Best Version: The untouchable 1965 original.

Worst Version: This delicate, jazzy song could be ruined in so many different ways, but Gatsby’s American Dream’s drum machine percussion, hyper-nasal vocals, and hastily chopped-in choir samples leave nothing to love. It’s that rare gem of a punk track that generates more anger than it expresses.

— Contributing Writer Ben Bateman

“Good King Wenceslas”

At Christmas time in Lutheran grade school, I was forced to wear white robes, march before strangers, and sing while carrying a live-flame. Midwestern adults enjoy spending Christmas Eve surrounded by little children with candles, yelping about virgins and frankincense. It’s a beautiful spectacle. Singing these brainwash carols today, I still feel like a boy dripping hot wax on his hands during the high bits of “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

My choir buddy Stevie and I had a debate concerning the lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas.” I insisted that the “fresh laid snow” was “firm and deep” while he claimed it was “deep and crisp.” We sung GKW in a voice like Speedy Gonzales’ slow cousin and it sounded dirty, especially the orgasmic: “Fu-u-el.” I would sing “firm and deep and virgin.” He would laugh. We’d get in trouble. By the time we got to “the rude wind’s wild lament” we were making fart noises underneath our choir robes.

To me, GKW is a joyful song about friendship and subverting authority. Especially sung in an offensive accent and sprinkled with flatulence and dirty lyrics.

The Best Version of GKW: Mel Torme jazzes up GKW so the song is actually bearable, even hep.

The Best Thing Done to the Worst version of GKW: Nothing captures the way I feel about GKW like these guys dancing to the Manheim Steamroller’s horrible ’80s synth version.

— Writer Jonathan Gourlay

“Sussex Carol”

If you look forward to the moment when every store and shopping mall starts piping Christmas carols through its PA system, you were probably never in band or choir. I joined band when I was ten: I have probably played “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” a few hundred times by now, and a young adulthood’s worth of playing Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” made me very good at making horse whinny noises on my trumpet.

So that leeched the cheer out of all the well-known Christmas carols out there, and a lot of the lesser-known ones, too. The ones I still like tend to be simple and very traditional; no big orchestral flourishes a la Barbra Streisand’s “Jingle Bells,” no kitschy “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” My favorite is the “Sussex Carol,” and specifically this version, which features the choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

Contrast that to the King’s Singers/Mormon Tabernacle Choir version here:

The only way this version could burst with more Christmas cheer is if Santa flew down from the North Pole for the grand finale. Poinsettias all over the stage, a mic’ed-up choir within a choir, a key change every 20 seconds, bell ringers wearing tinsel—it’s all a little too much for me. — Assistant Editor Darryl Campbell

“The First Noel”

Does “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” count as a Christmas tune? No? I guess I like a Christmas song the best when I can’t really tell it’s Christmas music at all. Holiday songs are such a musical free-for-all; when Bing Crosby, Miley Cyrus, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are allowed to cover the same song, the soul is sucked right out of those Jesus-exalting lyrics.

This may be why I’m partial to someone like Annie Lennox singing “The First Noel.” I was interested to see how a self-described agnostic would explain creating an Christmas album, so I watched an interview with Annie talking about the album. To her, most of the songs are nostalgic or recall a time and place in her childhood. I don’t know what “The First Noel” is actually about, and I doubt Annie has much religious interest in it. That’s fine with me.

Ella Fitzgerald does a great job as well:

Anyone who is able to listen through the Tobymac and Owl City rendition earns my respect:

— Writer Jordan Barber

“Angels We Have Heard on High”

This isn’t actually my favorite Christmas carol, but Gourlay stole my pick. (And by “stole,” I mean, “turned in on time, unlike me.”) I was locked in on “Good King Wenceslas,” so when I had to go looking for a second choice, I was stumped. That’s when I had a (pretty obvious) revelation: all Christmas carols stink. I like GKW because my grandfather sings it every year in a big booming voice, so it reminds me of my childhood Christmases, also known as “the only good Christmases.” But I would never enjoy it otherwise. So instead I picked “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which is my mom’s favorite Christmas carol because her mom used to sing it. Second-hand nostalgia is the best I can do.

If you like “Angels We Have Heard on High,” it’s probably because the “Glooooooo-o-o-o-oooooo-o-o-o-ooooooria” bit sounds nice when sung by a good singer, which you could say about millions of other songs. But whatever, it’s better than most of the crap you hear in commercials, and my mom likes it. Good enough for me.

The song was originally French, so the best version is gonna be by a French woman with pipes. So while it sure looks like Mireille Mathieu’s voice is dubbed into this clip, I love the way she comes in and totally dominates the little kid with the ridiculous haircut:

It’s impossible to nail down a “worst” version of this song since so many are ridiculously fucking terrible, but the lettering that appears around 1:40 into this video gives it a comedic edge most lack:

– Editor Nick Martens

Illustration by Hallie Bateman