Baking Day — 2018

We’ve gotten an early start on Baking Day this year. The necessary ingredients were purchased yesterday, I’ve got my baking/chilling/mixing plan laid out, the Dutch spice cookie mix is ready to go into the refrigerator to chill, and the Christmas music playlist is in full swing on the iPod. (I ‘m listening to Burl Ives’ bouncy Holly Jolly Christmas as I write this.)

I always really enjoy this day. Baking cookies is just fun.

Is Christmas Music Bad For Your Health?

We’ve turned another page on the calendar.  It’s November already, and that means . . . get ready to hear Christmas music everywhere you go.  For all I know, Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer is already playing on heavy rotation at the local mall.

567b6ea8160000b300eb98d9The British newspaper The Independent ran a story yesterday in which a clinical psychologist is quoted as saying that listening to too much Christmas music is bad for your health — your mental health, that is.  In the story, written by a reporter with the delightfully British name of Olivia Petter, psychologist Linda Blair states:  “People working in the shops at Christmas have to tune out Christmas music because if they don’t, it really does stop you from being able to focus on anything else.  You’re simply spending all of your energy trying not to hear what you’re hearing.”

The psychologist doesn’t cite any studies or clinical tests to support her conclusions, but this is one time where confirming evidence doesn’t seem to be needed.  I happen to like Christmas music — with a handful of notable exceptions like the aforementioned Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer and Do You Hear What I Hear? — but I can’t imagine what it would be like to work in a store where, starting about now, you’re required to listen to an endless loop of the same Christmas songs, over and over again.  Your first listen to the Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters version of Jingle Bells might put a holiday spring in your step, but by the 139th hearing on December 3 you’re going to be ready to hurl that appallingly fragrant holiday candle display through the store window and tackle the nearest Salvation Army Santa.  No wonder Clark Griswold lost it in Christmas Vacation.

Christmas music isn’t immune to the general rule that too much of anything isn’t a good thing.  So when you’re doing your holiday shopping this season, don’t be surprised if that person behind the counter seems a little bit edgy — and be sure not to whistle Frosty The Snowman when you make your purchase.

 

Christmas Music, All Day Long

Yesterday I was at the dentist’s office, getting my teeth cleaned.  As I was reclining in the chair, with the dental hygienist sand-blasting my teeth in a desperate attempt to make them slightly less dingy, she groaned.  “Oh no!  They’re playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer again!” she said.

rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeerSure enough, some uninspired, generic version of Rudolph had just begun to play over the office sound system.  I hadn’t really noticed until she mentioned it, but the sound system at the dentist’s office was tuned to a local pop music station that starts playing a steady diet of Christmas music as soon as Thanksgiving is in the rear view mirror.  It was only Wednesday of the first week of the Christmas music marathon, and already the hygienist was feeling the pain of the relentless carol barrage.  I said, “Well, you’ve only got four weeks to go” when she removed the scraper and saliva-sucking tube from my mouth.  She smiled bravely behind her mask but responded, “I’m not sure I can make it.”

I like holiday music, particularly the classic versions of carols and pop hits like Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree or Blue Christmas, and I’ve got a playlist of Christmas music on my iPod that I listen to while doing my holiday baking.  I could probably listen to an endless loop of the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack for hours and be perfectly content.  But the generic stuff, like a version of Do You Hear What I Hear by the latest one-hit wonder pop star, is nothing but grating.  I can’t imagine being forced to listen to instantly forgettable renditions of holiday music all day, every workday, and I’m grateful that I work at a job where that isn’t part of the performance expectations.

Employers should consider whether it’s only fair to their employees, and their sanity, to take an occasional break from the Christmas music every now and then.  Who knows what a dental hygienist, armed with hooks and scrapers and sand-blasting implements, might do after being driven around the bend by the 25th playing of Celine Dion’s version of Feliz Navidad?

Bing Christmas

If you like popular Christmas music, you probably like Bing Crosby.  It’s hard to think of a performer who is more identified with the holiday than Der Bingle.

Everyone knows about the Crosby version of White Christmas.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, his 1942 recording of the song remains the biggest selling record of all time, having sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.  And if you grew up during the ’50s and ’60s, you remember the family getting together to watch Crosby’s annual Christmas show, in which the Old Groaner — whose actual first name was Harry — and his family and friends sang traditional carols and encouraged those at home to sing along.  But Crosby had a series of big hits with Christmas songs, including a classic swing version of Jingle Bells recorded with the Andrews Sisters, above, and the irresistible Mele Kalikimaka (The Hawaiian Christmas Song), below.  And that’s not even including the definitive Crosby treatment of I’ll Be Home For Christmas, either.

During this baking weekend, I’ve got my holiday music playlist on the iPod to keep me going as I mix, cut, and bake.  It just wouldn’t be the same without the offerings of the crooner from Tacoma, Washington.

About Jingle Bells

If you listen to holiday music, you’ve heard Jingle Bells.  It’s been recorded by just about everyone.  Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters sold more than one million copies of the song in 1943.  It’s even been barked out by dogs. In fact, during 1890-1954, Jingle Bells was one of the top 25 most recorded songs in America.  So . . . who wrote Jingle Bells?

His name was James Lord Pierpont.  He was an organist and choir director, and he wrote the song for a Thanksgiving church service during the 1850s.  Precisely when and where he wrote the song — both Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia claim it — is unclear, but the sheet music was first published in 1857.  It was originally entitled The One Horse Open Sleigh.

It’s amazing that a song written before the Civil War could still be popular more than 150 years later.  How often do you hear anyone singing Camptown Races?  And who even rides in horse-drawn sleighs these days, or uses words like “upsot”?  But Christmas is a time when tradition reigns.  People eat traditional foods, sing traditional songs, and put up Christmas trees and Christmas stockings, just as they did 100 years ago.  We like those traditions because they connect us to our past and help us to remember our childhood.

Even though its context is traditional, Jingle Bells remains fresh and appealing. It’s got a bouncy rhythm and words that are easy to remember.  And, although people tend to forget it, Jingle Bells tells the story of young men vying for the affection of Miss Fannie Bright, who apparently liked horses and sleighs. It’s even got some pratfall humor — consider the third verse, which unfortunately almost no one ever sings:

A day or two ago,
The story I must tell
I went out on the snow
And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by
In a one horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie,
But quickly drove away.

With a verse like that, I’m guessing that James Lord Pierpont might not mind that many boys at heart hear the Jingle Bells melody and think of Batman, the Batmobile, and Robin laying an egg.

In Praise Of Vince Guaraldi

If you’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, you’ve enjoyed the music of Vince Guaraldi.

Guaraldi’s jazz-flavored interpretations of holiday classics like O Tannenbaum, What Child Is This?, and Greensleeves, played by a trio with Guaraldi on piano, Jerry Granelli on drums, and Puzzy Firth on bass, were perfectly suited to Charles Schulz’s beautiful tale of Charlie Brown’s search for the meaning of Christmas.  I long ago bought the soundtrack CD at a bargain bin, and Guaraldi’s songs have been a key part of the holidays at the Webner household ever since.  I really can’t imagine what the holidays would be like without that music.

On a soundtrack album that is filled with gem after gem, my favorite track is the the instrumental version of Christmas Time Is Here — spare, shuffling, deeply melodic, with each note heartfelt and moving.  It’s the first song on my holiday mix iPod playlist and it inevitably puts me in the holiday mood.  It’s perfect music for a wintry day.

Although I will always associate Vince Guaraldi with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi wasn’t a one-hit wonder.  With his trademark glasses and thick handlebar moustache, he was a staple of the jazz scene for two decades.  He recorded lots of excellent music, including the memorable Cast Your Fate to the Wind.  His career was cut short by his untimely death, of an apparent heart attack, in 1976, when he was only 47 years old.  You can learn a little bit more about Guaraldi and his music here.  It’s worth a few moments to know more about a man who helped to provide a soundtrack for our holidays.

Starting The Season With The Worst Christmas Song Ever

Just my luck!  I do some channel surfing on the radio, hit one of those all-Christmas-music-all-the-time-stations, and my first exposure to holiday music is the worst Christmas song ever.

That’s right:  I started my festive holiday music season by having to endure another annoying and dispiriting rendition of Do You Hear What I Hear?  Setting aside “novelty” songs like Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, Do You Hear What I Hear? is unquestionably the worst “mainstream” — that is, recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby — Christmas song in the book.  When I hear the predictable annual news reports about how many Americans experience depression during the Christmas season, I secretly attribute much of the rise in despondency and dejection to having to listen to this awful song played over and over again.

What makes Do You Hear What I Hear? so awesomely abominable?  Well, the forgettable melody is both uninspired and grating — but the real fingernails on a chalkboard impact comes from the lyrics.  Any song that begins with a “night wind” that can both see and speak talking to a “little lamb” about a star with “a tail as big as a kite” obviously is going to score high on both the cloying and inexplicable meters.  And when the little lamb then has a conversation with a “shepherd boy,” who in turn visits a “mighty king,”  the song crosses the line into irretrievable sappiness.  Apparently aiming for the mystical, the song instead come across like the cheesy plot line for a particularly bad Christmas cartoon.

It’s almost impossible to regain the proper Christmas spirit after having an initial exposure to Do You Hear What I Hear?  Fortunately, I resisted the temptation to kick over a Salvation Army bell ringer’s kettle and immersed myself in We Three Kings Of Orient Are and Jingle Bell Rock to regain my jovial holiday bearings.

Christmas With Dino

There are lots of good Christmas albums out there.  One of the better ones is Christmas With Dino — Dean Martin’s happy contribution to the holiday season.

Christmas With Dino is a good example of intelligent matching of song and artist.  Dean Martin’s well-lubricated, jovial singing style isn’t exactly well-suited to religious carols like O Holy Night or We Three Kings (unless he sang the version about the rubber cigar).  But it’s pitch-perfect for the lighter songs of the season, songs that celebrate snow, snuggling with your significant other, swinging parties, and general holiday merrymaking.

There are lots of good songs on this album.  My favorites are Let It Snow, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or, Rudy the red-beaked reindeer, as Dino sings at one point), Christmas Blues, Jingle Bells, and I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.  The best song, I think, is a definitive version of Baby, It’s Cold Outside, with Martina Mcbride singing the role of the indecisive female.  You just know that, by the time the song has ended, his entreaties and well-made cocktails have convinced his lady friend to cast aside her worries about her maiden aunt and spend some more quality time with ol’ Dino.

Following In Bing’s Footsteps

Let’s say you are a successful modern recording artist.  Your agent or manager or record company comes to you and asks you to do a Christmas CD.

A Christmas CD sounds attractive for lots of reasons.  You wouldn’t need to write any new songs.  Flip through the pages of the American Christmas music songbook, pick out the songs you want to record, hire some studio musicians, book a week of studio time, and you’re set.  It’s cheap, and straightforward, and your dedicated fans will probably buy just about anything you produce.

And yet . . . if you were a real artist, and not just a fad act looking to make a quick buck, doing a Christmas CD should fill you with trepidation.  It’s daunting to follow in Bing Crosby’s footsteps and sing the same songs he put his stamp on.  And unless you want to go to the fringes of Christmas music and fill your CD with novelty numbers like All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do.  How do you bring something new and fresh to songs that have been sung thousands of times by different artists and are as familiar to listeners as Happy Birthday?

I love to listen to Christmas music when December rolls around, and one of the things I like about it is hearing how different artists have tackled the standards.  You wouldn’t think anybody could produce a White Christmas that could contend with Bing Crosby’s definitive treatment, but the Drifters’ doo-wop version, Oscar Peterson’s jazzy take, and Linda Ronstadt’s duet with Rosemary Clooney are each as enjoyable and memorable, in their own way, as Crosby’s rendering.  In fact, you could argue that the very familiarity of Christmas songs has caused artists to experiment and push the boundaries of the music — often to good effect.  Christmas music is flexible enough to work with the Windham Hill approach, jazz stylings, choral backing, rock ‘n’ roll, and other genres.

We should applaud artists who release Christmas CDs.  Some of them will suck, for sure . . . but every now and then someone will rise to the challenge and hit upon an arrangement or approach that gives a new perspective to an old favorite, and add to the long roster of holiday classics that we can enjoy, again and again, in holidays to come.

Bizarre Classic

Each day I hear this Christmas song on the radio at least once. It has to be one of the most bizarre pairings in musical history ! Bing Crosby was a musical star of our parents generation in his seventies, while David Bowie was a musical star of our generation in his thirties when they recorded this Christmas song in 1977.

I mentioned it to a younger friend of mine that I really liked this song and she said “yeah, it’s cool” so I guess that means it stands the test of time and is a classic. A “pretty thing indeed”.

Holiday Mix

Christmas is less than two weeks away and the signs of the approaching holiday are everywhere.  The Christmas decorations have been taken from the basement and put in their familiar locations.  This weekend we will get our tree, trim it with the ornaments we have collected over the years, and hang our stockings on the chimney with care.   At the office, Christmas cards are arriving and being displayed on doors, and people have started to add seasonal touches to their clothing.  Women get to wear festive sweaters and scarves; men make do with holiday ties and socks (of which I have a decent assortment).

And, of course, a big part of the holidays is the music.  As I’ve mentioned before, I love Christmas music, and it is well-represented on the Ipod in the Holiday Mix playlist, which is 293 songs and 15.8 hours long.  I like mixing up music and I’ve tried to do that with my Christmas music playlist — instrumental music with vocal, traditional carols with pop songs and James Brown, jazz-influenced treatments with the Salvation Army band, classically trained tenors with ’50s crooners and torch singers.  The first 20 songs on the Holiday Mix playlist are as follows:

Christmas Time Is Here (Instrumental) —    Vince Guaraldi,   A Charlie Brown Christmas
The Christmas Song —   Linda Ronstadt,  A Merry Little Christmas
Gruber: Stille Nacht (Silent Night) —    José Carreras, Christmas Favorites From The World’s Favorite Tenors
Sleigh Ride —    Leroy Anderson,  Season’s Greetings-Disc 1-20th Century Masters The Millennium Colleion
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen —    Bing Crosby,  White Christmas
Jingle Bell Rock —   Bobby Helms, Season’s Greetings-Disc 2-20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection
O Come, O Come Emanuel —   Robert Shaw Chorale, A Festival Of Carols
The Holly & The Ivy —    Mediaeval Baebes, Mistletoe & Wine: A Seasonal Collection
Blue Christmas —    Elvis Presley, Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits
Go Tell It On The Mountain —   Mahalia Jackson,  Christmas With Mahalia Jackson
II – Redemption : Alma redemptoris —    Edward Higginbottom,  Nativitas
The Spirit Of Christmas —    Rosemary Clooney, Rosemary Clooney: White Christmas
What Child Is This? —    Oscar Peterson,  An Oscar Peterson Christmas
A Holly Jolly Christmas —    Burl Ives, Season’s Greetings-Disc 1-20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas —    The Carpenters, Christmas Portrait
O Holy Night (Cantique De Noel) —   Mormon Tabernacle Choir,  Christmas With The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Let It Snow —   Dean Martin, Christmas With Ol’ Dino
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71A – Danses Caracteristiques: Marche —    Alberto Lizzio: London Festival Orchestra, Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake (Ballet Suites)
Feliz Navidad —    José Feliciano,  Feliz Navidad
Please Come Home For Christmas —    James Brown,  Funky Christmas

Baking Day

Today I will be doing some Christmas baking.  It is a crisp, frosty day outside.  Kish is up in Vermilion visiting her Mom.  The Browns stink, so there will be no NFL-based distractions.

I’ve bought the ingredients and temporarily parked them on the kitchen island.  Nuts, flour, sugar, brown sugar, spices, coconut, eggs, butter, and milk, among others — just waiting to be chopped, sifted, beaten, and stirred into something good.  I’ve retrieved the familiar Christmas cookie implements from their storage places.  The oft-floured wooden rolling pin, seemingly straight from the hands of the angry wife in some 1950s sitcom.  The electric mixer, with its variable speeds and whirring efficiency and metal popouts.  The motley collection of mixing bowls, each a lone survivor from formerly matched sets.  The cookie cutouts that have been gradually accumulated over the years, some of which have been donated by our respective families.

My baking day procedure is time-honored and as comfortable as an old shoe.  I play familiar Christmas music, featuring liberal selections from A Charlie Brown Christmas, Bing Crosby, church choirs, and other classics, that puts me into a sentimental, holiday mood.  Recipes that require refrigeration are tackled first, so that they can chill while other baking goes forward.  As different concoctions are prepared and taken from the oven, the kitchen island fills up.  Icing is the last step in the process.   And then, after all of the baking is done, platters and gift boxes are prepared by walking around the island, selecting a finely calibrated assortment of baked goodies that are carefully placed on wax paper in colorful holiday boxes.

I always try to bake Christmas cookies early in December.  Baking cookies that I will give away to friends and family never fails to put me in a jolly holiday mood.

Christmas Music

I am a sucker for Christmas music of all kinds. I like traditional carols sung by choirs, ’60s holiday rock ‘n roll like Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, oratorical masterpieces like the Messiah, and jazz and Big Band treatments of the Christmas standards. I’m always on the lookout for some new holiday music to add to the Ipod “holiday mix” playlist. The challenge is to find another “Christmas album” that compares to the all-time classics, like Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas or, more recently, Linda Ronstadt’s a Merry Little Christmas.

And so, I must give kudos to the Purple Raider, who long ago recommended An Oscar Peterson Christmas. I finally picked it up recently, and it has met my high expectations. It is an excellent, note-perfect jazz tribute to the holidays that has to rank up there with some of the best Christmas albums ever. Its combination of slow and fast treatments, piano and vibes, will allow for an even better mix of tunes for the days of holiday baking.

More on Christmas music later. In the meantime, as we ramp up to the holidays, An Oscar Peterson Christmas gets the Webnerhouse seal of approval.