I have a playlist on YouTube of 110 Christmas songs. This is because I’m autistic. The playlist has developed gradually over the course of eight years.
It’s in alphabetical order, and there’s a corresponding index on my word processor listing all the songs, again alphabetically. The index exists as a sort of backup; if YouTube takes down any of the songs, I’ll be able to immediately figure out which one was removed, and hopefully find another version.
Based on all of this, you might think I enjoy Christmas. I don’t. It might actually be my least favourite time of year.
It is a time of enormous feeling, and I don’t trust feelings. And it’s not like you can escape from these feelings. The whole world grows quiet and still, leaving you to think about all the Christmases in the past, and all the ones yet to come.
And everything that’s been lost, and everything that’s been found, and do the two really balance out?
It goes on like this as the days grow shorter and colder and darker, and the season slowly suffocates me to death.
A few years ago I realized how fucked up this attitude was, and decided to change it. The traditional ideas behind Christmas didn’t work for me. I thought a lot about what the season could mean, and which ideas and values I could interject that might save the holiday for me.
I ended up reinventing Christmas for myself, using music as my primary tool. The playlist existed before this, but it really gained steam afterward, and became something deeper and more meaningful than just a list of songs. It is the primary expression of my ideas about Christmas. The season is still hard for me sometimes, but no longer quite so cold or dark.
So what does Christmas mean now? Well, I think that it’s an opportunity to celebrate humanity, or at least our potential as a species. It’s a time in which we can reflect on which values and ideals are important to us, and how we might grow and change in a positive way in the future. It’s about family, friendship, and interpersonal closeness. To a certain extent, it allows space for the traditions of the past, except when those traditions become bullying in their jocularity.
I established this new kind of Christmas in early autumn two years ago, wanting to get well ahead of the game. I wanted to associate Christmas with positive things, so while I listened to my playlist, I paced the streets of New York City using Google streetview.
It worked, although now I will forever associate Christmas with Manhattan.
Here are ten Christmas songs from my personal playlist, and what each of them mean to me. Some of them, I imagine, will stray pretty far from the traditional idea of Christmas. But the traditional idea of Christmas made me miserable, so it can go to hell.
Merry Christmas, Everyone (Shakin’ Stevens)
I think this was one of the first Christmas songs I collected, back in 2008. There were only twelve songs that year, and this was one of them. I have no idea how I found it, and I have no memories of it from before that point. It was a happy discovery, cheerful and light, but not oppressively so. Still, it’s a little strange that this of all things landed on the first version of my playlist.
He Lives In You (The Lion King, Original Broadway Cast Recording)
My clearest memory of The Lion King musical is from early December 2003. I saw it with my friend Skye, who was about to become my first girlfriend. The year was drawing to a close and all things seemed possible. There was a very real crackle of danger in the air. Still, that’s not why this song is on the list. It’s here because, if you tilt your head, it’s a Christian song: “He lives in you, He lives in me, He watches over everything we see. Into the water, into the truth, in your reflection, He lives in you.” I’m not Christian, but I appreciate a good religious song when I can find it, especially around the holidays. This has a unique sound, busy and tribal, and provides a nice contrast to most other religious music (and most other Christmas music, for that matter).
Christmas In Jail (The Youngsters)
This is a new addition. I found it this year while scrolling through YouTube looking for Christmas music. It’s a charming, old-fashioned novelty song from (it sounds like) the ‘50s. The most interesting thing about it is that it’s an anti-drunk driving tract, so pedantic it might as well have been commissioned by MADD, but entertaining nonetheless.
Homo Christmas (Pansy Division)
Oh, I love this song. There’s so much joy here, and what makes it feel meaningful is that it’s grafted to things that don’t typically, publicly receive this treatment. It’s about gay sex- described in great detail, with great enthusiasm. There’s always been a taboo against gay sex and gay relationships in popular culture, and much more so in the mid ‘90s when this song was released. But Homo Christmas is unapologetic in its expression of lust and love. I admire its embracing of marginalized identities, and I wish that disabled culture was consistently capable of being this silly and sexy. But it’s not all risque naughtiness. Just look at the lyric, “Your family won’t give you encouragement, so let me give you sexual nourishment.” There’s more heartfelt sincerity in that line than there is in 95% of other Christmas music.
The Balance (The Moody Blues)
This encapsulates the idea of understanding and improving oneself, which is a key component of what Christmas means to me now. I first heard this song when I was thirteen, which is when I needed it most. It’s funny how that happens, isn’t it? Even though I now associate it with Christmas, my strongest memories of listening to The Balance are as a thirteen-year-old, at the beginning of summer, hanging around Sauble Beach with my family on vacation.
Fairytale of New York (The Wurzels)
Everyone seems to love this song. Not this version though- the one by The Pogues. I hate that one, because the lead singer can’t fucking sing. But The Pogues’ version introduced me to Kristy MacColl, so I’m grateful for that at least. For a long time I felt like I should like this song, and I listened to it several times, but never warmed to it. There were parts I liked- enough parts that I eventually realized it could be a good song in the hands of a decent band. So I went searching for a cover, and eventually found this one. It actually sounds a lot like the original, except that the lead singer sounds like he’s only slightly tipsy, instead of being in the throes of end-stage alcoholism.
What a Wonderful World (Rico Rodriguez)
For some reason, reggae music sounds seasonally appropriate to me. I don’t know why that is; it just feels right. I have a couple of reggae songs on my list. This is probably my favourite, for two reasons:
The first is that it’s What a Wonderful World, which is one of my favourite songs. It’s eloquent, life affirming, and the very essence of what Christmas should be (Louie Armstrong’s version is also on my playlist).
The second is that Rodriguez sounds like someone’s adorable grandfather who’s had too many drinks at his 80th birthday party and now feels compelled to sing about how much he loves his life. That is awesome, and this song is awesome, and when I’m listening to it, even Christmas seems awesome.
Cripples at Christmas (Mat Fraser)
I discovered this song last year, and it’s quickly become one of my favourites. It’s everything I love about disability culture: silly, funny, and heartfelt. I find that disability activism is all too frequently sad and angry, and that frustrates me and burns me out. Fraser is my kind of activist; he sees the joy in disability. His nod to the high mortality rate among disabled people especially resonates with me. Since I became immersed in this community I’ve seen a lot more death, illness and injury than I used to. These situations are devastating every time they happen, but there’s nothing we can do. You can cry or laugh when faced with a reality like that, and Fraser chooses to laugh. I do, too.
The River of Dreams (Billy Joel)
My favourite Billy Joel song. It sounds old and new at the same time, and both exalted and down to earth. For ages it didn’t occur to me to reframe it as a Christmas song, but then it seemed like a no brainer. The song is about a spiritual quest, searching for “something taken out of my soul. Something I would never lose, something somebody stole.” which sums up how I often feel about Christmas. When I was a kid I loved it, and then something shifted and continued to shift and it became toxic. Since then I’ve been trying to reimagine and reconstruct the season, and- in a larger sense- exploring how and why the things we’re so certain of can disappear or deform so quickly. My favourite part of the song is this lyric, applicable at Christmas and any other time: “We all end in the ocean, we all start in the stream, we’re all carried along by the river of dreams in the middle of the night.”
Bless Us All (A Muppet Christmas Carol)
Oh, this song. Let me tell you about this song. First of all, listen to it. Just listen to it, and pay close attention to the lyrics. Okay, now that you’ve done that, let’s put this song into context. It was performed in 1992 by three of Jim Henson’s most seasoned Muppeteers: Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, and Steve Whitmire. Jim Henson had died two years beforehand, unexpectedly, at the age of 53. A Muppet Christmas Carol was the first major Muppet production made without him. While this movie was in production, longtime Muppet performer Richard Hunt also died. Whitmire was hired to replace Henson, and believed he was ill-equipped to do so. Oz was Henson’s best friend and closest creative collaborator. Nelson was impacted by Henson’s loss as well, and his performance as the seriously ill Tiny Tim must have had some kind of impact on him: his daughter died of cystic fibrosis ten years before this movie was released. A Muppet Christmas Carol was directed by Jim Henson’s son Brian; it was his first stint as director.
So all these people, affected by loss and grief in different ways, in different stages, came together to perform Bless Us All, which is about the importance of kindness and courage, how fortunate they are to have each other, and how important it is to hold on no matter what comes your way. I can’t imagine the tenacity it must have taken to create this song under those circumstances, and the strength of character it took to perform it with such conviction. Make no doubt about it; the men involved believed wholeheartedly in what they were creating, regardless- and perhaps because- of everything that had happened to them.