The other day a friend mentioned how, with the year almost over, we would soon be besieged with all sorts of “best of 2012” lists. I’m not sure why humans have the impulse to categorize and rank things, but we do it all the time. The 500 Greatest Albums. Top 100 Television Shows. Biggest One-Hit Wonders. Most Influential People of the Year. I admittedly enjoy these kinds of lists and sometimes make up my own.
I thought for a long time about what the best Christmas recording of all time is. I don’t mean my personal favorite, the most meaningful, the most spiritual, or the widest known. I mean the one record that I think just sounds the best year after year, and that will always represent Christmas for as long as I hear it.
And I decided it was Nat King Cole’s 1961 version of “The Christmas Song.”
First, the words really capture the whole mood of the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through Christmas: roasting chestnuts, Jack Frost, carolers, turkey, mistletoe. The part that talks about “tiny tots with their eyes all aglow” finding it hard to go to sleep always causes a little lump to form in my throat. And of course, who can deny the ultimate simple message of the song—the singer wishing a fond and earnest Merry Christmas to listeners of all ages? (Well, I guess you’re not included if you are 93 or older, but let’s not quibble.)
Then there is that beautiful and lush orchestration—immediately on hearing those first two notes and then the strings rising and falling, you are whisked into Christmas world. I love how the strings truly make you think of Dasher, Dancer, Rudolph, et al. racing through the sky right after Nat sings of children spying to see “if reindeer really know how to fly.” During the musical interlude, there is the gorgeous piano playing and the sonorous (vocabulary!) guitar. And of course the guitar coming back at the end to layer “Jingle Bells” over the conclusion. The sophisticated production of this classic never sounds dated, unlike many other well-known holiday records. For example, I really love “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, but the whistling and the backup singers contribute to it being an artifact of its time and place, albeit still beautiful. “The Christmas Song” by Nat is timeless.
A lot of people sing this song—in fact, it’s the most performed Christmas song according to Wikipedia. Nobody sings it like Nat King Cole. I have never heard the words “fire,” “nose,” “Eskimos,” “knows,” and most especially “choir” phrased the way he phrased them. When I was small, I almost thought he was singing in a different language. His voice actually sounds like a fireplace to me. When I hear him sing this, I can feel myself calming down, my blood pressure decreasing, almost as if I am being lulled into listening.
It is not my personal favorite Christmas tune, although it is one of them. If I had to cast my vote, however, for the song that represents the best of holiday music, this would be it.
“And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you!”