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How The Kinks Captured the Reason for the Season - by James A. Baumann

Holiday music is one of those things that is truly difficult to judge on its own merits. So much of the experience of hearing it is framed around setting and context. And, when you consider that much of the setting and context of holiday music – at least in today’s America – is based around the retail experience, well, it’s fighting an uphill battle from the get-go.

This concept first began to settle in my mind around 1990. If memory serves, that was the first Christmas that I worked at a family-owned flower shop, doing deliveries, handling shipments, and cleaning out the backroom. The money was good and needed. But it also meant weeks of driving on icy streets, frozen fingers and toes, and 12-hour-long working days; during most of which I was surrounded by Christmas music. 

When I was out in the delivery van I had free reign to listen to whatever I wanted. I made good use of the radio’s volume knob as well as the Sony Walkman and scattered tapes that sat on the passenger seat. But when I was in the store, I was at the mercy of what was playing.

The store was too small to splurge on a Muzak system, so the playlist was about three cassettes that would continually play through tinny speakers. From time to time someone would remember to switch them out, but when things were busy one tape would just play through again and again. It should be noted that this was also about the time that the world discovered that you could program dog barks to sound like “Jingle Bells.” It would have been like the music they play to break up hostage situations except I wasn’t allowed to leave.

Flash-forward to 2002 or 2003. I’m in the middle of my first day-to-day office job that would eventually be capped off by that corporate tradition of the lay-off. Before that, though, I also had to navigate the corporate tradition of office holiday decorations and – as most germane to this topic – the holiday-music-obsessed co-worker. Her name was Megan. She was smart, fun, nice, and really was about all one could ask for in an officemate save for the fact that, starting at Thanksgiving, her radio was locked-in to the Columbus radio station Sunny 95 and their all-Christmas music format. Headphones could only block so much. I quickly needed a coping mechanism.

I took my inspiration from Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” who passed his time in isolation by bouncing a ball and counting the days with tally marks on the wall. I commandeered an erasable white board and began my own count of how many times particular songs were played. It quickly began to fill up with the more popular titles and rows of hash marks.

Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” had to have been the tote board leader. Needless to say, I never again have to hear the Boss asking me if I’ve been good this year. Close behind was probably Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” which – particularly after it being drummed into your head for a month straight – comes dangerously close to undoing all goodwill he had ever built up with the Beatles. I’m sure I was inundated by the Mariah Carey song, though I swear I can’t think of a note of it right now.

I suppose a highlight would have been when David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s “Little Drummer Boy” would come up on the playlist, but mostly because it was as though David Lynch had been given control of the holiday for a moment.

All of this may lead one to think I am opposed to all holiday music. That is not true. Year after year, I would get misty during Darlene Love’s annual appearance on Letterman to sing  “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” The Pretenders’ “2000 Miles” is stirring. Who doesn’t like John Lennon’s “Merry Xmas (War Is Over)?” “Fairytale of New York” remains a poetic short story with backing music. And, at the risk of sounding like a Pencilstorm suck-up, I will comfortably put Watershed’s “Still Love Christmas,” with its sleigh bells and Casio keyboards, in this neighborhood. 

This all brings me to The Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” my unquestioned favorite holiday song. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is it rocks with the buzzsaw guitar and thunderstorm drums that kicks it off. Plus, there is the added benefit that, due to the face-value of its lyrical content, it rarely, if ever, makes it onto any piped-in holiday music set. It remains pure and unsullied in my mind.

One might deem me a Scrooge for loving a song that denies the existence of Santa within the first 20 words, but stick with it. The protagonist still revels in his childhood presents and, once he reaches adulthood, even takes the time to be a Salvation Army Santa in his neighborhood.

Granted, he is promptly mugged by a group of street urchins who profess their need for cold, hard cash versus typical playthings. But could a Kinks’ Christmas song have any other sentiment? 

This is Ray Davies’ England after the Village Green was paved over and Muswell Hill was flattened. Even still, he never looses the true spirit of the season. The threats and complaints of the kids are bookended between blissful memories of his childhood Christmas and then gentle, adult reminder that, even if you’re doing pretty good this year, there is someone out there who isn’t. 

Probably someone forced to listen to those dogs barking “Jingle Bells.” - James A. Baumann


THE KINKS – FATHER CHRISTMAS  (video below)

When I was small I believed in Santa Claus
Though I knew it was my dad
And I would hang up my stocking at Christmas
Open my presents and I'd be glad

But the last time I played Father Christmas
I stood outside a department store
A gang of kids came over and mugged me
And knocked my reindeer to the floor

They said
Father Christmas, give us some money
Don't mess around with those silly toys
We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over
We want your bread so don't make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys

Don't give my brother a Steve Austin outfit
Don't give my sister a cuddly toy
We don't want a jigsaw or Monopoly money
We only want the real McCoy

Father Christmas, give us some money
We'll beat you up if you make us annoyed
Father Christmas, give us some money
Don't mess around with those silly toys

But give my daddy a job 'cause he needs one
He's got lots of mouths to feed
But if you've got one I'll have a machine gun
So I can scare all the kids on the street

Father Christmas, give us some money
We got no time for your silly toys
We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over
Give all the toys to the little rich boys

Have yourself a merry merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin'
While you're drinkin' down your wine

Father Christmas, give us some money
We got no time for your silly toys
Father Christmas, please hand it over
We'll beat you up so don't make us annoyed

Father Christmas, give us some money
We got no time for your silly toys
We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over
We want your bread so don't make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys