I love library book sales. There’s nothing quite like strolling down rows of folding tables covered with thousands of formerly loved books longing to find new homes. While many young couples frequent farmers markets on weekends, my wife and I made a habit of seeking out library book sales for our entertainment and nourishment.
Between the dog-eared Danielle Steeles and Windows 95 manuals, there are real gems. And for me, those gems often aren’t books at all, but vinyl LPs. Pop and rock finds are quite rare, but I can always find some classical or jazz records worth shelling out a dollar or two. There are other obscurities I want to introduce to my son, like Alan Sherman and Tom Lehrer. But deep down, I’m always looking for Christmas records.
The real meaning of tradition
I’m usually not one to buy into tradition for the sake of tradition.
“We’ve always done it that way,” is perhaps the worst reason to maintain a less efficient or problematic process or idea. Abandoning the past for a better future is one of our greatest virtues.
But aside from burning candles on a conifer drying in my living room, I’m happy to lean into almost every Christmas tradition, be it Christian, Pagan, or Capitalist. And the Christmas tradition second only to exchanging gifts is music. Waking up early on a cold morning, sitting on the couch in a bathrobe and slippers, sipping a mug of coffee and eggnog could be the scene on any winter’s day. But if Bing Crosby is crooning over the pops and scratches on 60 year old vinyl, that means Christmas has come.
Year after year, we never tire of hearing the same songs over and over. Certainly some Grinches among us complain about the music. However, that’s mostly a reaction to the consumerism Charlie Brown has been warning us about for over 50 years.
There’s a reason Mariah Carey topped the Billboard Hot 100 with “All I Want for Christmas Is You” 25 years after its initial release. Traditions take time to build. They need time to be repeated, remade, and remixed. They need to be memed. That’s the proverbial test of time.
Vinyl Records and Christmas
With all that in mind, I decided to dive into my library book sale Christmas record collection and learn what I could about the repetition–or lack thereof–among the different songs. To be sure, this is far from an exhaustive or scientific study. My collection is relatively small (about 30 discs). It’s not current (the newest record is 1987’s A Very Special Christmas). Additionally, it bears the bias of what people in my area donate to library charities. But let’s jump in anyway.
My first discovery of note is that almost every single record has a version of “Silent Night.” A full 80% of them do, with versions by a diverse group of artists: Frank Sinatra, The St. John’s Seminary Choir, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Andre Kostelanetz and His Orchestra, Leontyne Price, Boston Pops, Earl Wrightson, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (twice), Tennessee Ernie Ford, Perry Como, Robert Shaw Chorale, Julie Andrews, Johnny Mathis, Al Hirt, Perry Como, Stevie Nicks, Paul Anka, Bing Crosby, and Jim Reeves. Six albums even place “Silent Night” as the final track, leaving the 200 year old song echoing in your mind as the stylus lifts off the vinyl and creates its own silence.
Repetition builds tradition
The repetition is astounding. Just 21 different songs make up 50% of the total tracks. Only 25% of songs appear just once. Of those unique recordings, we find some exploration into new genres (“Christmas in Hollis” by Run-DMC) and non-English language hymns (“Gesu Bambino” performed by Luciano Pavaratti).
A few leave me wondering what the artists were thinking at the time (“Giddi-Yap, Giddi-Yap, Whoa, Santa” by the Caroleer Singers and Orchestra).
There are some songs I don’t want to hear different versions of. I don’t need a non-Bobby Helms version of “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” by anyone other than Brenda Lee, though I’m open to convincing otherwise.
I definitely don’t need to hear anyone sing “Santa Baby” ever again. Sorry, Eartha.
The tie that binds
Returning to the top of the list, those 21 songs we listen to again and again, the common thread is versatility.
O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Joy to the World
O Holy Night
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The First Noel
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
The Christmas Song
Carol of the Bells
Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly
The 12 Days of Christmas
We Three Kings
These melodies contain vast room for interpretation. They’ve been repeated and re-arranged countless times in church choirs, school auditoriums, living rooms, and recording studios. They span genres. They contain multitudes.
Each time a new artist approaches one of these songs, they add to our collective consciousness. Each version is a log in the hearth, keeping us warm through long winter nights.
When The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and seminal punk band Bad Religion can both evoke powerful and earnest reactions from such dissimilar renditions of the same music, I understand why these are the songs we pass down for generations. Why these are foundational to our traditions.