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Two Sad Christmas Songs

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Every year, when radio stations decide it’s time to kick out the Christmas jams, listeners are plunged into a realm of fantasy. While this moment always amuses, this year it felt more disorienting than usual. Reindeer, chipmunks, one-horse sleighs — whether or not your December resembles the winter wonderland depicted by Christmas songs, it’s just a metaphor for the jollities of the season. The question is whether the metaphor system can negotiate its own failure and resemble today’s cold, cruel world. What if the season is not jolly? What if there’s no way to spread Christmas cheer? What if people can’t and shouldn’t travel to see their families? Most importantly, what if the wind doesn’t blow? What if it doesn’t even snow?

Brenda White’s “Christmas in the Northwest,” which annually serenades Seattle-area radio listeners, asks these questions. Heartwarming proof that local kitsch exists wherever you go, it started as the theme song for a local Seattle charity album called Christmas in the Northwest (1985) benefitting Seattle Children’s Hospital. The Christmas in the Northwest series has since produced 10 sequel albums, most of which include “Christmas in the Northwest” (as well as contributions from Heart, Steve Miller, Dave Matthews, Kenny G, and Harvey Danger); White later used the song as the centerpiece of her own holiday album, An Evening in December (1990). It belongs to a long-overlooked genre of Christmas song, about spending the holiday in a place with no snow. 

Starting with a brief burst of orchestral fanfare, the song clears its throat over swelling horns and strings before stripping down to solo piano, as White declares, “It may not be white, might be a rainy night/but there’s nothing like sharing the sounds and the sights of Christmas in the Northwest.”

When the symphonic backup reappears, the bells and woodwinds burble with the rich, dinky intricacy of so many Christmas-themed orchestral arrangements, going back to the Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait (whose expanded CD edition had conquered the holiday market a year earlier), that evoke miniature toys and festive decor. Yet there’s something grand about it, too; there’s a tension between the silly sentiment and the earnest execution, leading us to wonder: who is this breathy, wholesome singer, and why is she so invested in promoting the Northwest as a place to celebrate Christmas? Is there some particular Northwestern historical significance behind Christmas that we’re missing? Or is she just feeling the holiday spirit? During the chorus, White reaches new frontiers in bathos when she sings, “Take away the presents and you still will have a tree/for Christmas in the Northwest is a gift God wrapped in green.”

Amy Grant, A Christmas Album (1983)

Amy Grant’s “Tennessee Christmas,” a more famous defense of a snowless state, plays similar psychological tricks. The opener on Grant’s first Christmas album (of many), A Christmas Album (1983), “Tennessee Christmas” conjures a rosy electric glow, as the polished guitar plucking and subtle pedal-steel colors complement the quiet ache in Grant’s voice. Once again, she’s longing for snow that won’t fall (“I know there’s more snow in Colorado than my roof will ever see/but a tender Tennessee Christmas is the only Christmas for me”), but she considers sunnier locales, too, pondering the idea of a trip to California before deciding to stay at home, as she does every year (“They say in LA it’s a warm holiday, it’s the only place to be/but a tender Tennessee Christmas is the only Christmas for me”). 

As befits Grant’s status as contemporary Christian pop queen, “Tennessee Christmas” borrows a trope more generally used in country music (and countless romantic comedies as well), in which the narrator is briefly tempted by the allure of a glamorous big city before returning to the comforts of home, family, tradition, security, and so on. This trope, which sets up the ritual re-embracing of convention, usually conveys a deeper underlying anxiety — the narrators may not be as happy with their circumstances as they claim. Accordingly, the hushed melancholy of “Tennessee Christmas” suggests resignation: this is Grant’s lot, so she’d better get used to it. The song offers no reason why she needs to spend Christmas in Tennessee every year. Sometimes she’d really like to travel, but maybe she can’t afford it; maybe she has to work on Christmas, or maybe she has to take care of ailing relatives. Whatever the situation, she’s stuck, and so the song’s endorsement of tradition emerges as a moving gesture of self-consolation. 

There’s a similar nagging anxiety behind “Christmas in the Northwest.” Between White’s syrupy delivery, the ornate fuss of the arrangement, and the several false endings finally resolved by her climactic high note (“in … greeeeeeeen!”), the song strains for solemnity. You only try this hard when you’re aiming to prove something you know is wrong, possibly to yourself. The unnecessarily serious and contemplative melody is one clue that something’s wrong; another is the alarming line, “Take away the presents and you still will have a tree.” Who said anything about taking presents away, just because it’s not snowing? It’s as if a single deviation from the ideal, one crack in the facade, will cause the whole dream to shatter: no snow, no presents, no Christmas. White’s enthusiastic vocal contortions match the song’s mounting hysteria, as she huffs and puffs in order to breathe life back into Christmas. “Tennessee Christmas” is more restrained in both content and execution, written and performed with controlled pop expertise, but it reflects the same panic. 

Pondering a tradition of popular romantic myth as wet as curdled eggnog, these songs negotiate the space between ideals and lived experience. A Christmas without snow is no tragedy, but, like everything in this musical tradition, it’s a metaphor for existential disappointment, pain, having to make do. Both “Tennessee Christmas” and “Christmas in the Northwest” depict states of dismay at the world’s failure to live up to the ideal, generating poignancy from how these singers cope. Moreover, while savoring the bittersweet moment, these songs instate a new ideal in the event of the previous one’s collapse, hence the ad-worthy slogans throughout (“a tender Tennessee Christmas,” “a gift God wrapped in green”). Yet they know their green, snowless Christmas cannot succeed as an alternative archetype. Since it will always evoke the classic ideal, there’s no escape — Christmas spirit does not emerge through dialectics. Only their determination to celebrate the holiday anyway — to believe despite it all — saves them. 

There’s much to learn from these songs: their silliness, their tunefulness, their resilience, their willingness to commit to the basest of popular sentiments despite evidence that those sentiments are false. More than most secular (and religious) Christmas songs, “Tennessee Christmas” and “Christmas in the Northwest” are about faith. Maybe one day soon it’ll snow; families will reunite; faithful friends who are dear to us will gather near to us once more. Until then, we will make do with gifts God wrapped in green. 

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