No Joke

I’ve recently been rediscovering some of the music that I liked as a kid. Since I listened almost exclusively to “oldies” as a kid, it means I’ve really been enjoying a lot of music that my parents grew up on, which is a very strange sort of nostalgia.

But I was listening today to the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke,” and it got me thinking. I’ve always kind of liked the song, and read it as the lament of an asshole getting his due. But listening it tonight, it occurred to me that it could easily be about a bigot, or bigots in general. Let me lay out my (kind of silly) case.

I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.

“I started a joke, but it actually caused harm to people.”

But I didn’t see
That the joke was on me.

As people got wiser, became better, they realized that the real joke here was the bigot, the backwards asshat who thinks it’s funny to judge and dismiss a group of people because of some common trait.

I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing,

Ultimately, the only rational response to bigotry–and to the overly dramatic gymnastics that bigots engage in to claim that they’re the real oppressed victims–is ridicule.

Oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.

This all could have been avoided if I’d realized in the first place that bigotry is fucking terrible.

I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes,
And I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I’d said.

But instead I got overdramatic, thinking that the whole world was out to get me, thinking that my petty problems matched the difficulties faced by the people I demeaned, and attributing any difficulties I had to my willingness to speak truths that other people found uncomfortable or impolite or politically incorrect. It never occurred to me that I was just a jackass.

Til I finally died, which started the whole world living,

Old bigots die. The problem with bigots is they tend to get entrenched in their beliefs, and they tend to get entrenched in positions of power within the existing social structure, allowing them to get their bigoted beliefs embedded in the social structure. It’d be nice if those old bigots could realize that they’re wrong with the ease that younger generations tend to, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Consequently, the solution has long been to allow the old bigots to gradually die off, taking their bigotry with them, and leaving the society in the hands of people who largely see that bigotry as a relic of an unenlightened past. The change comes slowly, the change comes painfully, but it comes.

Oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.

It’d be nice if that weren’t the case, but bigots cling so desperately to their beliefs. As they dwindle in numbers, they become increasingly ridiculous. And increasingly pathetic. They become increasingly the punchline of society’s joke.

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Ch-ch-chain

As far as I know, there’s no video of the talk I gave last year at GenCon on the subject of Chain Letters and E-Mail Forwards. Thankfully, “Weird Al” Yankovic has kindly summarized it:

In honor of Boobquake

As the world crumbles around you, due to the amazing power of cleavage, at least you can listen to some good, relevant music. Not safe for work.

Minor things

First, this column at Slacktivist is amazing.

Second, tomorrow is Wednesday, January 27th. At 10:00/9:00 Central is the mid-season premiere of Psych on USA Network. I’ve been planning to write up a full post about Psych for some time, but every time I pop in one of the nifty DVDs I got for some recent winter gift-giving festival, I get a little distracted. I hesitate recommending the show only because it sometimes feels like it’s targeted directly at my weird ’80s-reference-based sense of humor, and I don’t know if that works for many people. It certainly doesn’t work for a lot of the people who hear my weird ’80s-reference-based attempts at humor. In any case, the relevance to this blog is that Psych is one of the best skeptical shows on TV. Now, it’s not hard science or skepticism like Mythbusters or anything; it’s more skeptical in the vein of the original Scooby-Doo. For those who don’t know, it’s a mystery series following a fake psychic detective who works with a somewhat credulous police department. The protagonist is hyper-observant, which serves him both in the over-the-top psychic pantomime and the whole mystery-solving routine. Despite having some potential rooting in woo-woo, the show has tackled “real” psychics, ghosts, mummies, and other “paranormal” topics without ever giving credence to the supernatural. In the end, it always turns out to be the dude who owned the abandoned amusement park.

To recap: tomorrow night. Catch it!

Finally, I never quite managed to write up my review of They Might Be Giants’ newest album, the absolutely incredible “Here Comes Science.” Had I done so, I would have mentioned that my only real problem with the entire album was that their video for the song “Put it to the Test” used the word “theory” when they really meant “hypothesis.” See for yourself:

Simply fantastic. If you like science and quirky music, the album comes highly recommended, and you should pick it up. If you don’t like quirky music, then the album comes highly recommended, and you should pick it up for your kids!

Gosh, this post comes across sounding like a commercial, doesn’t it? I hope my corporate paymasters are paying attention.


1. If you don’t know already, They Might Be Giants recorded a song in the ’80s called “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas).” It was a cover of an educational song from the ’50s, and they rerecorded it for “Here Comes Science.” The cool part is that, recognizing how much we’ve learned since 1951, the next track on the album is a follow-up called “Why Does the Sun Really Shine? (The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma).” Not only do they update and correct the earlier tune, but they manage to work the line “that thesis has been rendered invalid” into verse.

Church bulletin

So, I went to church last Sunday, and I’m almost glad that I did. It was a very entertaining service, which at least once tipped toward giggle loop territory.

First, my brother and I left for church after everyone else, neither of us really having any desire to go to Sunday School/Bible Study. I’m pretty sure he’s seen me in the closet, so to speak, mostly because I accidentally left my list of Podcasts open on iTunes the other night, and saw him looking at it. Curse you, “The Atheist Experience,” for coming so early in the alphabet! Anyway, after a fallout between him and my mother a few years back, I suspect he’s got about the same mindset. We listened to The Lonely Island on the way to church, and arrived just before the service started.

Things began with the teeny-tiny choir walking up to the stage from the back of the church, singing “Rejoice in the Lord Always” a capella. Now, maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s some impulse from some forgotten passage in my youth when I was involved in a church chorus, but the song felt incomplete. I felt the difficult-to-resist urge to add in claps where they would be rhythmically appropriate, i.e.:

Rejoice in the Lord a-always, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice in the Lord a-always, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)

I don’t know, it was like taking the claps out of “Jack and Diane”–without them, there really wasn’t much to the song.

The first Hymn ended up reminding me of this passage in its layers of double-entendre. It wasn’t quite as hilarious, but with all its talk of “raising” and “stones” and “let the cry be heard across the land,” my gutter-mind was rapidly filling. When it got to the last bit, about “prais[ing] him with 10,000 tongues,” I shot a glance at my brother, and we both almost lost it.

Things were uneventful through the brief announcements and the offering and the special music and whatnot. Then the sermon started, and boy do I wish I’d had a tape recorder. It started with standard Easter clichés–it’s a beautiful morning, Jesus is risen, what a wonderful sacrifice, etc. But about two minutes in, it got fun. The pastor explained why Jesus died for everyone’s sins:

As Spock would say, “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one.”

It took me a second to realize that, yes, he actually said that. My brother groaned, and I just kind of sighed and shook my head. In the absurdity of the moment, I didn’t even realize that he messed up the quote (it’s the needs of the many).

Now, this might have been a moderately good segue into a sermon explaining Christian theology in terms of Star Trek. There are better openings for such a sermon, and I don’t think it would have been appropriate for Easter Sunday, and there’s the absurdity of using atheist Gene Roddenberry’s frequently anti-religious series to frame Christian beliefs, but such a sermon would have been interesting. This wasn’t that sermon; Spock would not be mentioned again.

  • After some more talk about how awesome Jesus’s sacrifice was, the pastor* said that he sometimes wondered what it would be like if Christ came today–then clarified that he meant the first coming, or what if Jesus had waited until the modern day to do his thing.

    Now, I’ve often thought about this very question myself, though obviously not from the same perspective. Given the lack of evidence for Jesus’s existence and the likelihood of much of the story of his life being exaggerated, mythologized, and fabricated, I don’t think there’d be a whole lot of difference, if any. But what if Christianity had never taken hold? What if, like all the other contemporary messianic Jewish spinoff cults, it had fizzled out or never even existed in the first place? What would the world be like?

    That’s usually about as far as I get. For one thing, I don’t have the requisite historical knowledge to be able to imagine that scenario with any kind of detail. For another, say what you will about the Christian church (and I do), but they have been fairly efficient at amassing power, prestige, wealth, and influence in the last 1700 years or so. Without Christianity, what religion would Constantine have chosen? Would that have filled the vacuum left in the absence of Christianity? Would some other religion be able to fill the same niches, spreading to and assimilating from other cultures with the same ceaseless alacrity? One of the key innovations of Christianity, which I credit for much of its success even today, was ease of conversion: all you have to do to become a Christian, as so many preachers will tell you, is hit your knees and accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Other religions require you to be born, married, or conquered into the fold, or ask you to go through lengthy, painful, or difficult conversion rituals. Christianity doesn’t even require you to remove your foreskin! Would the replacement religion of Rome have this same flexibility? Would a religion without that trait spread as easily?

    By the time I begin considering a Middle Ages without a Catholic church to fight the Crusades and fund the Universities, I realize that there’s very little chance that a world without Christianity would bear any resemblance to the world with it, except perhaps in those regions where Christianity never flourished.

    That would have made for an interesting sermon, and a far more interesting history lesson or book (in fact, if such a book exists, I’d like to read it). This was not the direction that the pastor chose to go on Sunday. Instead, he paused after that brief “what if” introduction (just long enough for someone to strum some harp strings and for the screen to go all wavy) and then began to read:

    Peter Pumpkinhead came to town,
    Spreading wisdom and cash around
    Fed the starving and housed the poor,
    Showed the Vatican what gold’s for.
    But he made too many enemies
    Of the people who would keep us on our knees.
    Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead.

    I perked up after the first two words, far more shocked than I was at the Spock reference. Was a pastor, in a church–a Christian church–actually quoting XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”? He was. And he continued to do so.

    Peter Pumpkinhead pulled them all,
    Emptied churches and shopping malls.
    When he spoke, it would raise the roof:
    Peter Pumpkinhead told the truth.
    But he made too many enemies
    Of the people who would keep us on our knees
    Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead

    At this point, under my breath, I said (quite incredulously) “Is he going to sing the whole song?”

    He was. He went through the whole song, more or less. He fouled up the last line of the third verse (saying “Any kind of law with love’s all right” as opposed to “Any kind of love is all all right”), and I realized after the service that he’d abbreviated the chorus (even when, at the end, he repeated “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin” twice, as it sort of does in the song). The actual lyric is “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin / Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkinhead?”

    I like the song enough that I picked up the album it’s on (“Nonsuch”) at a used CD store a month or two ago. Here’s the video:

    After finishing the song and the citation, the pastor said something like “Is that what it would be like if Jesus came today? Would we miss the point like that?” Pastor, if your sermon is any indication, then we’d miss the point by a wide, wide margin.

    Now, perhaps I’m way off, but I don’t think “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” is a pro-religious song. In fact, I read it as the story of a secular messiah, who “tells the truth” against religion, consumerism and probably government. He “empties churches” with his speeches, which makes enemies of “the people who would keep us on our knees”–i.e., religious leaders. I suppose tyrannical governments would fit in as well, but the line has always seemed to have the connotation of prayer to me. The Christ imagery is certainly intentional, and the video makes that even more explicit, but it reads to me more a criticism of the church message than a validation of it.

    Then again, my interpretation is also informed by one of XTC’s other well-known songs. Given “Dear God,” I kind of have an inkling as to what XTC’s thoughts on religion are. Furthermore, I have a hard time believing that anyone in the United States could be familiar with XTC’s version of “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” (as opposed to the Crash Test Dummies version off the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack) without also being familiar with “Dear God,” which I’d think was the much more popular song. Similarly, I have a hard time believing that anyone would be familiar with either of those songs without knowing “Mayor of Simpleton,” much to my chagrin.

    It’d be like knowing The Beatles for “The Long and Winding Road” and not knowing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Come Together.” Point being, I don’t know how you could pull a positive message about religion out of “Ballad” if you were at all familiar with the band’s other songs, and if you paid any attention to the lyrics, and if you had any sort of moderately orthodox religious views. Either this pastor is very oblivious, very dense, or very keen on irony, and I’m almost certain that the latter isn’t the case.

    So that was pretty entertaining. And while it would have been schizophrenic and borderline disrespectful to hear someone make a sermon out of such a (blatantly, from my perspective) atheistic, anti-religious song, the pastor didn’t follow through. After briefly touching on the meaning of the song (mostly just asking a couple of questions about whether or not it would be like that today) he shook his head and said something to the effect of “let’s get out of that nightmare.” Unfortunately for him, he’d done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario as nightmarish. In fact, he’d really done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario–all the characterization was original to the song, and there’s nothing really nightmarish about the story. I could see coming up with a nightmarish scenario where the congregation is made to consider how they would feel as the modern-day Pharisees and Pilates responsible for crucifying the modern-day messiah, but this wasn’t that sermon.

    After this, the pastor went on about various themes related to the day–we’ve all both succeeded and failed in life, we’ve all stepped off the path, and we gather together in part to help each other back onto said path, we all believe in God, we have to practice our faith–you get the idea. He had a tendency to lead down a path with a thematically repetitive series of phrases, culminating in some pithy, obviously telegraphed punchline, after which he would stop and smugly beam as though he’d said the most profound thing ever. The example that really sticks out is the “practice” thing, how we have to practice our faith, and the word “practice” came up so many times in the rambling sermon that it was the closest thing it had to an overarching theme, even though most of the sermon had nothing to do with it. But after one string of phrases about practicing, he said “and practice makes perfect,” and stopped, and grinned this smug grin. Okay, great, not only was it patently obvious that you were going there, but it seems like you’re suggesting that as long as we’re diligent in going to church and following the rules, we can be Jesus.

    I can’t really stress this point enough: in order to be an effective speaker, you really have to have some awareness of what message your audience is getting from your speech. This pastor didn’t have a clue, and it really showed. There were several occasions where I could tell that he expected the audience to be feeling some specific emotion or sensation, but he hadn’t done anything to make them feel that, and so the moment fell entirely flat.

    Anyway, somewhere along the line, he descended into something that I can only describe as the Glurge Gallop. He started telling a story about a pastor who told a story to a congregation–very meta.

    To digress a moment, I suspect that if Jon and I were to come up with a list of rules for bad movies and music to follow, based on our long and storied history of consuming bad media, one of them would be “Don’t make references to better movies/songs.” It pops up an awful lot, actually, where some terrible movie or terrible song will make a throwaway reference to some much better movie or song, either demonstrating that the artist thinks they’re really clever or that they think they’re actually as good as the object of the reference**. If the song or the film is good, then the reference serves whatever purpose is intended–satire, homage, jarring juxtaposition, etc. When the work is bad, the reference only serves as a reminder of how bad the work is. Moreover, it shows that the artist is familiar with better works, which means they don’t even have ignorance as an excuse for the poor quality.

    That’s what this meta-sermon did: by giving a sermon about another pastor giving a better sermon, the pastor really only underscored how bad his sermon was by comparison, and showed that he’d at least been exposed to better sermons, which should have given him some idea as to what makes for a compelling speech.

    This is not to say that the story he told was all that good. A quick Google search turned up many versions (as I’d expected) that have likely been forwarded around in e-mails with tags at the end exhorting believers to forward this message to everyone in their address book, an act for which they will be doubly blessed***. Here’s the closest version I could find with minimal effort. The jist of the first half of the story is that the pastor comes into church and sets an empty birdcage on the pulpit, then proceeds to tell the congregation the story of how he met a small child who had the cage full of birds. He asked what the kid planned to do, and the kid responded that he’d play with them, then when he got tired of them, he’d feed them to his cat. The pastor bought the birdcage from the boy (who named his own price–$2 in the version I heard) and set the birds free.

    On its own, that would have made for a decent start of a sermon, either from the pastor at the church or the one in the story. It’s a parable, and it would make for a decent sermon about how Jesus paid the price to set us free from sin. It would, that is, if not for the last half of the story. The probably-fictional pastor then goes on to tell the exact same story, except with Jesus and Satan in the roles of the pastor and child, and humans in the cage instead of birds. Now, it’s one thing to use a story as a metaphor for what you’re trying to teach, it’s quite another to belabor the point by telling a metaphorical story, then telling the same metaphorical story in a slightly different fashion so that the metaphor smacks you in the ass with its obviousness. The good sermonizer would take the parable of the caged birds and relate the various elements to the story of Christ’s sacrifice; the poor sermonizer writes bad fanfic about Jesus and Satan having a little chat.

    One of the more interesting features about that story was that it included a Jazz interlude of sorts, a place where different people telling the story could be creative and add their own touches to it, much like the chapters of “The Iliad” about the various sorts of boats in the fleet, or the vast majority of The Aristocrats. In this case, it’s the passage where Satan outlines his plans for the caged humans. I can’t recall exactly where the pastor went with this, though I definitely recall “divorce” being in there, and I seem to recall war-related stuff as well. The latter, I’d think, betrays a pretty staggering ignorance of all the places in the Bible where God orders war (and worse). The former just strikes me as odd–I have a hard time seeing divorce as a purely negative thing; certainly happily divorced couples are better than unhappily married ones, right? It seems like the real “devil’s work” there would be causing incompatible couples to fall in love with one another, or pressuring people to marry prematurely or for bad reasons.

    But there I go again, the bleeding-heart liberal godless atheist, wasting time on the reasons why people do “bad” things, rather than just attributing it all to sin and Satan.

    But despite how condescending, repetitive, ham-fisted, and sappy the full story ends up being, I suppose you could craft a decent sermon around it. I don’t know why you’d want to; it seems like the best option for that idea would be to cut out the last half and let the parable stand on its own. Such sermons can work very well; I quite liked the one about gossip in “Doubt,” where the priest told a story about another priest using a parable (though it was a little less meta) to teach a lesson. But again, that parable wasn’t immediately followed by a pedantic retelling where the meanings of all the symbols were made explicit. Regardless, none of these was the sermon that the pastor preached on Sunday.

    No, instead of tying this story into the apparent theme of “practice,” instead of really elaborating on the story, instead of making any connection to “Peter Pumpkinhead,” the pastor whipped out another glurge. This story starts with a dark night in Chicago****, where a homeless boy peddles newspapers on the street. I don’t know if it was the mumbling or just my lack of sleep, but when the pastor started, I thought he said “In ‘Dark Knight,’ in Chicago…” (since that’s where much of the movie was filmed). I thought it would be odd to pull a religious message out of The Dark Knight, but after Spock and XTC, nothing was going to surprise me. Rather than comparing Harvey Dent to Job, though, the pastor went on to relate the linked story, where a boy uses “John 3:16” as a secret password to get food, shelter, and comfort for the night. Go ahead and read the story, it’s sappier by far than the previous one, and this post is long enough without a recap. If you want, you can find it here on the Snopes forums, with some amusing comments.

    Back? Okay, so a small child gets hospitality and charity by citing a chapter and verse. Now, I understand what the point of the story is, but it still seems like the better verse would be Matthew 25:40 (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”) or Matthew 19:14 (“But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven”) or Deuteronomy 15:11 (“Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy”) or any of a dozen other verses about charity, hospitality, and cute Dickensian ragamuffins, rather than just the summary verse of Christianity.

    I honestly don’t remember if the pastor did any follow-up on that story. I remember him saying something at some point about how we haven’t been able to eliminate war and hatred and blahdey blah in 2000 years, and for shame and so forth, but beyond that, the rest of the service is kind of a blur.

    So Spock, XTC, and the licorice whiplash of non sequitur glurges, all connected only by the fact that the same guy was saying them in the same place in the same block of time. I’m not exactly astounded that such a sermon could get made and presented–I’ve seen the same problems in college writing–but I’m a little astounded that a pastor could be complimented for the sermon afterward (admittedly, I don’t know how many people did that, but at least one did). To my parents’ credit, they found the sermon just as inane as I did, and suggested that a lack of self-awareness was a feature of that pastor’s character (“he thinks he can sing, too,” my dad said, or something along those lines). By any reasonable standards, this was a terrible speech, with no overall theme, no single point, just a bunch of half-formed unrelated ideas. At least it was entertainingly bad, I suppose.

    Look, far be it from me to tell Christians how to write their sermons; I’m not their intended audience (or, then again, maybe I am). All I know is that I’m not interested (or swayed) even the slightest bit in sitting on an uncomfortable pew for an hour having someone read me the e-mail forwards they’ve received in the past week. From my perspective, the vast majority of the justification for religion rests in emotion, and a large portion of apologetics arguments are appeals to pathos. I don’t expect sermons to be logically valid or based on sound evidence–then they’d just be lectures–but I do expect that a sermonizer have some awareness of emotional appeals. If you don’t have that, then there’s not a whole lot left–kind of like that song, sans clapping. There’s content, sure, but it’s repetitive and shallow, and there’s no way to get into it.


    *I’m reasonably certain that this church would use a different word. The concept is essentially the same though.

    **Good examples: Gwen Stefani mentions (and uses the bass line from) “Another One Bites the Dust” in “Hollaback Girl,” Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” is about “Sweet Home Alabama” (and samples “Werewolves of London”), Rihanna’s “SOS” samples “Tainted Love” and name-drops several other ’80s songs, and so forth.

    ***Particularly if they happen to be barely seventeen and barely dressed.

    ****On the Dickensian London side of the city, apparently.

  • Stay Vigilant

    It’s that time again. On this day, millions of people gather together to remember the day they believe a man rose from the dead and walked the Earth once more. We celebrate this day and keep its memory fresh and alive, in hopes that it never happens again.

    That’s right, it’s Zombie Awareness Day.

    No mere mortal can resist!Now, it’s commonly thought that only one person rose from the dead on this day in the first century C.E., but according to early sources, this may not have been the case:

    And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
    –Matthew 27:52-53

    In fact, if the stories are to be believed, then the celebrated resurrectee himself, Jesus of Nazareth, had a history of working to raise the dead (Matthew 9:24, Luke 7:12-15, John 11:39-44). Like a first-century Herbert West or Victor Frankenstein, Jesus used his inhuman powers to bridge the uncrossable chasm between life and death, in preparation for his own eventual return from that undiscovered country.

    Now, I don’t necessarily think those stories are credible, but I do think they provide a clear warning for us: the Zombie Apocalypse could happen any day, so you must always be ready to take up arms and fight against the undead menace.

    So, you may be asking yourself how you can best celebrate today. Well, you’re in luck, because I’ve compiled an incomplete list of appropriate Zombie Awareness Day activities:

    • Walk around your local malls, shopping centers, and hospitals, determining the best places to hole up in the event of Zombie Apocalypse.
    • Clean your shotguns, sharpen your machetes, polish your cricket bats, and check through all your stockpiled ammunition and canned goods.
    • Study one of the many informative and prophetic texts on the subject, such as Max Brooks’ “Zombie Survival Guide” and “World War Z,” or Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
    • Watch one of the numerous documentaries or cautionary films on the subject, from the classic “Night of the Living Dead” to the more contemporary “Shaun of the Dead” “Dance of the Dead,” and “Army of Darkness.”
    • Sing along with some of the traditional holiday songs.
    • Test your survival skills with one of the various video game simulators, such as “Left 4 Dead,” “Dead Rising,” and the Nazi Zombie levels of “Call of Duty: World at War.”

    That ought to keep you suitably busy on this most important of holidays. As always, stay vigilant, and shoot for the head!

    ‘Tis (Almost) the Season

    For me, it started on Halloween (or possibly the day before), when I walked into a Wal-Mart and saw employees decorating a large Christmas Tree right in front of a display filled with witches and pumpkins. I know it’s cliché to complain about Christmas starting earlier and earlier each year, but really?

    Anyway, that’s not the reason for the post–or at least, not all of it. It’s just that since then, I’ve heard increasing amounts of Christmas music. The retail stores are the main places, but I’m always a little miffed at the radio stations that completely change formats for over a month in order to play Christmas music 24/7. I got out of the car for a meeting today while one version of “The Christmas Song” was playing, and re-entered the car not quite an hour later to hear another version of “The Christmas Song.” And neither one was the Nat King Cole version, the only version anyone ever needs to hear or play.

    See, I’ve realized this season that I really like Christmas music, but I like it on my terms. For a week or two around this time, I crank up the Christmas playlist on my computer and listen to the particular songs and versions of songs that I really enjoy. Songs like these:
    Auld Lang Syne: Basically the honorable mention spot, since I consider it a New Year’s song more than a Christmas one. But, hey, they sang it in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so it must be part of the season, right? I don’t have a particular preferred recording, but I do change my cell phone ringtone over to this around New Year’s each year. And then around January 6th, people will ask me if my phone’s ringing, and I’ll say “no, that’s not my ringtone” a couple of times before I realize I haven’t changed it back yet. It’s a good song about renewal and friendship, I think, but I’ve never been quite clear on what the lyrics mean. I guess it’s kind of the “Louie Louie” of holiday songs.

    Holly Jolly Christmas: Burl Ives and only Burl Ives, straight out of the snowman’s mouth. The Rankin-Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a classic, even if the whole thing comes out of crass commercialism. Then again, I have a soft spot in my heart for the He-Man/She-Ra Christmas Special:There are a lot of songs like this one (“Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” have obvious similarities), but I think “Holly Jolly Christmas” generally does a better job of conveying the fun and spirit of the season.

    All I Want for Christmas is You: The Olivia Olson version, from “Love Actually,” not Mariah Carey. I have some shame. “Love Actually” has rapidly become one of my favorite Christmas films; it’s joined my “watch each year” pantheon alongside “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Scrooged,” and “Ghostbusters II,” the greatest Christmas movie of all time. As for the song, it’s catchy, it’s sweet, and it’s great to hear an eleven-year-old out-diva-ing Mariah.

    Baby It’s Cold Outside: On my playlist, I have both the Johnny Mercer/Margaret Whiting version and a Louis Armstrong/Velma Middleton version, and each has distinct charms. The latter’s great for the live ad-libbing and innuendo, while the former is worth it just for the surprise in Whiting’s voice when she sings, “hey, what’s in this drink?” I like Christmas songs that are about the greatest gift of all: nookie. This may be the most festive song ever written about date rape. At least it’s not as dark as “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

    God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: This one, however, is that dark. As far as I know, “Gentlemen” is the only mainstream Christmas carol to explicitly mention Satan. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the earlier carols, and it’s one of the few in a minor key. I don’t have a favorite particular recording, though I like the Barenaked Ladies/Sarah McLachlan version. I prefer versions that bring out the age of the song, though, versions that are deep-voiced as though sung between sips of hot cider from a flagon in a great hall. This is the Christmas carol that Vikings would have sung…if, you know, they were Christian.

    The Night Santa Went Crazy: At either level of goriness, this song’s fantastic. And every time I hear “Mama I’m Comin’ Home” start, I hold out a little hope that it’s Weird Al instead of Ozzy.

    Good King Wenceslas: It is damn hard to find a decent recording of this song online. I just spent half an hour and three dollars on iTunes, trying to find versions that didn’t kill the tune with high-pitched voices or slow tempos. The tempo for this one has to be pretty brisk, or the song just plods. I like the sound of it for much the same reason that I like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but I really like the content of this one. Shock of shocks, it’s a Christmas song that’s actually about the much-vaunted Christmas spirit of helping those less fortunate. I can really get behind that.

    Angels We Have Heard on High: This is probably my favorite classic Christmas song, and not just because of its island rhythms. I think it’s also the most overtly religious song on my personal list. Let it never be said that my beliefs impede my ability to enjoy good music. I just all-around love this song; when I was a kid, it was one of two hymns I actually looked forward to singing in church (before you ask, I can’t remember the other one–though seeing one of my old church’s hymnals for less than a dollar on Amazon has me tempted to find out). Like “Good King Wenceslas,” a slow tempo simply kills this song, but I’m less picky with the pitch. Plus, it’s partially in Latin, so that’s cool too.

    That’s my list; what’s yours?