031: The Beach Boys, ‘Little Saint Nick’

I live in what can be called the only non-Christian country in the Western world, so come Yuletide, things are pretty normal out on the streets of Israel (well, ‘normal’ by local standards). It’s quite surprising for visitors, how conspicuous Christmas is in its absence. And take into account that I live 55 kilometers (34 miles) from the original manger, easily traversed on camelback in a day and a half.

As close as it is, it’s a rather foreign event here, where Chanukah and Purim are much more widely celebrated. But I grew up in a wholly Christian world, so I still feel pretty comfortable about the whole thing, just a bit distanced from it. There have been years when I haven’t even noticed the holiday beyond a mention or two on the local news. But since the great majority of SoTW readers abide in The Big World Out There, I figured it would only be proper to dedicate this week’s posting to the good old red-and-green.

The world would be a poorer place without Christmas music. So much of our Western tradition revolves around it, from Liturgy’s Greatest Hits to Bob Dylan’s (some would say ‘bizarre’, others ‘unfortunate’) “Christmas in the Heart”. What is Christmas music for me? Well, of course, it’s Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby. But there’s a lot of my high school Ensemble in there, too. We had a whole repertoire of holiday songs, many of which I can still sing through without blinking, and we’d perform every night in December, it seems.

So every year around solstice time I treat myself to some of my Chrismas favorites.

Kurt Elling’s wonderful album “The Beautiful Day” is a favorite of recent years.  I’m not going to give up the religion of my forefathers, but boy he paints a very attractive picture, Kurt does.

And we’ll visit some suitably solemn music, such as “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen, as performed by the Nordic Chamber Choir. I had never heard of any of the three until recently. It’s a beautiful, spiritual, sacred motet, a cappella. Morten is a USC professor and 3-time Grammy nominee. And it turns out that he is currently “the most frequently performed American choral composer”. Well, how about that? Well, I’ve been away for a long time. Give a listen to that Nordic Choir. Just about perfect, I’d say.

This year I tripped over a fascinating genre, completely new to me: Contemporary Gospel, and one of its main proponents, The Clark Sisters. Imagine 4 Aretha Franklins, 100% siblings, singing Detroit Baptist church music that sounds more like Stevie Wonder than The Soul Stirrers.

And what would Christmas be without my buddies The Real Group? Hark, The Herald Angels Swing.

Two of my favorite chanteuses wrote great songs about the dark underside of the holiday — Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ (check out this very, very beautiful treatment by the Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line. Heaven.) and the great Yuletide cheer-killer, Laura Nyro’s moving ‘Christmas in My Soul‘.

And then there’s that paragon of spiritual uplift, Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift for You”, featuring such gems as The Ronettes’ ‘Frosty the Snowman‘.

‘Little Saint Nick’–Brian Wilson, live video, 2005 (Recommended)

‘Little Saint Nick’–The Beach Boys, live on Shindig

But the chestnut roasting on my imaginary fire, polished all candy-apple red, grinning, waiting to bop — The Beach Boys “Little Saint Nick“. I’ve written about Brian Wilson and his band often and with a pedant’s gravity. But what the heck? Who can resist an ebullient hot-rod carol?

Just a little bobsled, we call it old Saint Nick
But she’ll walk a toboggan with a four speed stick
She’s candy apple red with a ski for a wheel
And when Santa hits the gas, man, just watch her peel.

Now that’s holiday spirit.

So to our readers all over the world, from the whole staff of Song of The Week, y’all have a good holiday — everyone, everywhere.