The Greatest Christmas Songs Ever Recorded

A father decorates a Christmas tree. Photo: Getty Images

Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.

“Not sure if you’re aware, but Christmas is just around the corner,” my beloved MTV Hive editor Mike Ayers reminded me in an email. “Any way your last Spitz Take of 2011 could be about your favorite Christmas songs?” In theory at least, it was an excellent suggestion. I have a lot of strong opinions and emotions wrapped up in holiday music. But as it turns out, after doing just a modicum of research, not a single one of my strong opinions or emotions is in any way unique. The Internet is literally clogged with stories about the best, worst, saddest, happiest, weirdest, funniest, phoniest, most played, most obscure, most rockin’, most religious, most nostalgic, most unintentionally stupid Christmas songs of the year/ decade/ century/ all time. I honestly did try to write something pithy and original about Christmas music, but my every observation just seemed painfully redundant, every half-hearted gag sounded like something from a hackneyed stand-up act. “Have you ever really listened to the lyrics to ‘Jingle Bells’? There’s that line ‘We ran into a drifted bank and there we got upsot.’ What the fuckity-fuck does ‘upsot’ mean anyway? Who’s with me?” No, I can’t be that guy.

I begged Mike to let me skip the column this week. Let’s just agree that there’s a lot of Christmas music in the world, and you’ve probably heard all of it by now. You know what you like, you know what you don’t, and that’s the end of the discussion. But Mike insisted I try anyway.

Okay, fine.

Here’s my definitive list of the five greatest Christmas songs ever recorded in human history, based on very specific memories from my childhood that have nothing whatsoever to do with you, unless you also knew a guy named Chad who played the Little Drummer Boy at your church and committed suicide when you were a kid. Maybe you did? That would be weird.

1. Andy Williams, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

Growing up in a small town in northern Michigan, this song was always playing on constant repeat in our house. My father couldn’t get enough of it, but even at a young age I found it profoundly depressing. Williams is just a little too insistent about it being “the hap-happiest season of all.” Nobody that happy on the outside is nearly as happy on the inside. I imagined that Williams’ breathe probably smelled like bourbon and regret, and he hadn’t spoken to his children since the last time he told them what a disappointment they were. But even with that sad mental image, I still feel instantly nostalgic for the song every time I hear it.

The last time my brother and I visited our home town, we knocked on the front door of our house — our parents sold it decades ago — and asked to take a peek inside. Walking those familiar hallways, I could almost hear Andy Williams aggressively optimistic singing. “You’re happy! You’re fucking happy! Be happy, motherfucker! Smile, smile, smile!” But it was July, so there was no Christmas music. And nothing else in our former home looked even remotely familiar. I guess we just assumed it’d stay exactly as we remembered it, preserved forever as a historical landmark, like Lincoln’s log cabin.

We scoured the house for evidence of Us, and discovered a tiny scratch on one of the bedroom doors that had somehow escaped the revisionist history of paint. We huddled around it, ignoring the not-so-subtle hints from the new owners that we’d overstayed our welcome. We debated every possible explanation for the scratch, coming up with hundreds of potential origin tales, giving its backstory far greater weight than it probably deserved.

“There’ll be scary ghost stories,” we both hummed without realizing it, “and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

2. Vince Guaraldi, “O Tannenbaum”

When I was 23, my dad gave me a basketball for Christmas. Almost immediately after I opened it, he asked if I wanted to “shoot some hoops.” I would’ve been as surprised if he’d asked if I wanted to do Jägerbombs and hit on Puerto Rican chicks.

We were not, in any discernible way, an athletic family. I’d dribbled a basketball only once in my life, and even that’s open to speculation. And my dad, well, my brother once described his basketball skills as “a retard with an oily baby.” We both watched a lot of NBA games and were fluent in basic basketball terminology. We could say things like “free throw” and “point guard” and “full court press” and actually know what we were talking about. That was our entire experience with basketball, which made us roughly as qualified to play the sport as practice criminology or perform circumcisions.

But my parents had a basketball hoop in their driveway, and for any American male between the ages of six months and 95-years-old, a basketball hoop is like uncut heroin to a junkie. We couldn’t not use it. We had dreams of jumping into the air and wagging our tongues and hanging from the rafters and doing chest high-fives — or at the very least, landing a few baskets without experiencing shortness of breath.

“Every time I hear Vince Guaraldi’s mournful piano, I feel like getting an afternoon buzz and not being active. It’s in my DNA”

We changed into less formal clothing and met out on the driveway. I stretched my glutes and cracked my knuckles and made obscene “feel the burn” expressions, which I hoped conveyed my competitive ferocity. He threw the ball at me, I caught it (just barely) and threw it towards the pavement in what I hoped resembled a dribble. But it didn’t bounce back. Instead, it imploded. The air hissed out of its wound at a staggering rate, and within seconds it was just a lifeless orange blob.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Not sure,” he said, lightly toeing the rubber carcass. “Must’ve gotten a leak.”

We just stared at it, dumbfounded. It didn’t seem like there was anything left to do but say a few prayers and dig a shallow grave. There was probably a simple fix, but it would’ve involved getting in a car and driving to a place where men in dirty overalls looked at us with condescending smirks. And we didn’t need that kind of sarcasm on Christmas. So we left the deflated basketball on the driveway and went inside and ate cold waffles and drank warm beer and watched a Charlie Brown Christmas.

Every time I hear Vince Guaraldi’s mournful piano, I feel like getting an afternoon buzz and not being active. It’s in my DNA.