The Tale of My Greatest Christmas Album of All Time
It has a red cover and a picture of Santa Claus on the front.
That’s how I find it when I’m searching for it on Spotify. The original CD lies in my childhood home, somewhere between Best of The Eagles and Bill Withers Greatest Hits. It’s called The Best Christmas Album in the World… Ever!, but when I search for it, I never get the words exactly right. I type things like, ‘The Absolute Best Christmas Album’ or ‘The Best Christmas Album of Them All,’ and I get pictures of multiple Christmas-inspired covers that are not the right one. They’ll have very similar songs, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t need the almost exact same songs. I need the exact songs. In their exact order. Just like they’ve always been.
This album has no ‘All I Want for Christmas’. No ‘Santa Tell Me’. It was pre-Mariah Carey, pre-Ariana Grande, and came out way, way before Michael Bublé re-did all the old ones. The Best Christmas Album in the World… Ever! was released in 1997, when I was seven years old. Even though I forget the exact title, I remember the songs in near perfect order.
First comes the whisper (“happy Christmas Kyoko…”) and then the soft, oaky voice of John Lennon, A Capella, before the guitars join in beneath him, saying ‘so this is Christmas.’ It gives me that warm mellow feeling of home, of the start of something special, this path through chilly December that will take us all the way to Christmas morning, with its presents and earning rising and mum’s homemade sausage rolls.
After that comes the upbeat, bouncy, echoey intro to Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime.’ Two Beatles, in separate songs, one after the other, heralding Christmas and imprinted in my memory from before I really understood what the Beatles were, or their stories, or how they separated… before I knew that the other voice on the first track is Yoko Ono, and that the whispers are to their children, not to each other. Before there was context and biographies and the knowledge that John Lennon was no longer in this world, even though his voice remained, there was 1997 and the sound of the opening two songs of The Best Christmas Album in the World… Ever!
When we were young enough to still believe in Father Christmas, my sister and I would go to bed and swear to stay awake until he arrived. We hung tatty pillowcases on the chest-of-drawers in our shared bedroom, and I would watch the door when we’d gone to bed, with the light from the corridor glowing around its four edges, trying to keep my eyes wide open, sure that I would be able to stay up until he walked through that door. But somehow, I never managed. I would blink, and then open my eyes again to see the pillowcases on the floor, chubby with little wrapped parcels. Still dark outside, I would wake my sister urgently and together we would wake our brother in his bedroom across the hallway. None of us ever managed to see him.
The sound of a cash register cracking into gear, a man talking joyfully over the music, the bass climbing snazzily, cheekily up to announce the snowman bringing the snow. It was a song we would dance to at the Primary school Christmas lunches, a song that inspired bounce-dancing around the living room. The children sang on the track at the end, just like we sang in our school assemblies. That song gave way to the drawling, attitude-filled voice of someone asking ‘are you hanging up your stocking on the wall’. He announced nonchalantly that Merry Christmas was here, everybody having fun, and yet even as I child I recognised an irony, a lazy sarcasm in his voice that didn’t sound like he was really having fun at all. Or maybe it said he was too cool to have real fun. It was a song that promised fun but looked at it with a side-eye.
As teenagers, we continued the tradition of waking up before sunrise to go downstairs with our pillow cases. As the older two, my brother and I pretended to keep believing in Santa Claus until my sister was old enough to be told. I’ve always thought that was a heavy burden for my brother, to be the first one who found out that magic didn’t exist, to have no one to talk to about it, to have to keep pretending for the two of us that the presents were from a man in the sky and not from my mother, who stayed up till 2 or 3 am, wrapping and wrapping and wrapping, whilst my father drank ale and didn’t help at all. Maybe our dad was sent to sneak the pillowcases in, or maybe my mother did it herself, knowing he’d probably knock into something and wake us all up, ruining her brilliant record of being an undetected Santa stand-in.
My brother held that burden alone, until I interrogated my mum for so long about the logic of the man’s existence that she finally cracked under the pressure:
‘I already know he’s not real, mum, it’s obvious, so why don’t you just tell me?’
The resignation in her eyes.
‘Okay, you’re right, he’s not real.’
A silence on my part. A deep, terrible shift.
‘I wish you hadn’t told me.’
Number five on the album. Initially my favourite, melodically, vocally… the different superstar voices coming in one after the other, the pleasing quality of hearing Sting sing ‘the bitter sting of tears.’ Bono’s voice soaring into the chorus and everyone joining together to have us put our ‘arms around the world’. Even when we were old enough to have read about the controversy, the tone-deaf nature of the number, the good intentions awkwardly executed... Even then, I still loved number five.
It swung into number six, with The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, the swinging feel of the song that made you want to skip, the jollity of it at deep odds with the story of lost love, broken promises and crushed dreams. It was a song that said do not trust love, it will leave you alone and bitterly disappointed, having wasted your life. Still, I dreamed of New York. I dreamed of love.
I was heartbroken over Christmas several times, waiting for text messages that never came and making it everyone’s problem. We’d watch Independence Day on Christmas Eve – our yearly tradition – and I’d check my phone. My sister would try and get me involved in a game of some kind and I’d shrug, play along moodily, feeling a loss, even though I had siblings and a mum who loved me. My mum would cook and prepare and cook and prepare, while dad would go to the pub and not be back till late. A strange abandonment emerged in my heart that I felt every Christmas, as if someone had disappeared or wasn’t with me. Or wasn’t real. Was never real. Someone tall and loving who came to give gifts, left crumbs and an empty glass, the smell of brandy in the air.
My left field favourite is number seven on the album - Greg Lake. ‘I Believe in Father Christmas.’ It is a song that gives away a secret, if you listen closely enough. A song from which we could have worked it out, and yet we never would have, because a song can’t make you doubt something that you know as the truth of your world. ‘I saw him through his disguise,’ sang Greg Lake. Who was he, beneath that disguise? That man in the song? The man outside of the song?
There was the Christmas where my father didn’t come home. He had been working away for many years, returning for short stints of time, and that year, he said he wasn’t able to come at all. My brother was also away, travelling, maybe in Columbia or somewhere ‘cool’ that young men go, and so for Christmas it was just me, my mother and my sister. It snowed in the lead up to Christmas Eve, heavily, and we hunkered down in the house, playing Boggle. So much Boggle. We were shards of the former picture, five become three. We loved and we laughed, eating mum’s sausage rolls, and the Christmas album played. My sister and I got up early still, but my brother was not across the corridor as he was before. My mum still gave us presents in our pillow stockings, even though we were both much too old for it by now. We played the album that year, but the songs sounded a little different.
My least favourite is number eight. A filler track, in my opinion. ‘2000 miles.’ It warbles along, boringly, promising of return that I doubted would come. He’s gone. I miss you. So many songs about men driving away.
But it is followed by the weirdest and yet possibly best of them all. ‘The Spaceman.’ Chris de Burgh. Before I knew how much everyone hated ‘Lady in Red’ (or loved to hate ‘Lady in Red’), I knew his voice from the Spaceman song. The one that’s secretly about Jesus. Or probably. Or an alien. Or whatever. Did it matter? The melody crept in eerily, the accompaniment filled with minor chords, creating a haunting, unsettling atmosphere in the verses that’s add odds with the widely accepted notion of ‘Christmas cheer.’
But then, the chorus comes. That big, wide, ‘ahhhhhhhhh… ahhhhh,’ and each time it played, my sister and I would let loose and sing, our hearts, our souls, in tune, if not completely our voices… ‘AND IT WENT… AHHHHHHHH’ At seven years old, at ten years old, thirteen and sixteen and nineteen years old, my sister and I would let our voices burst out and sing along to the spaceman song, whatever was going on in the world, or in the house, we would sing, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes not looking at each other, but present, around the same tree, united by blood and tatty pillowcases and the shared melody of experience, we sang.
There’s a change in the album around song number ten, with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I think it’s because it’s not really a Christmas song, is it? Or there’s nothing about Christmas in it. But it’s a break from Christmas, a time for pause, looking around, reflecting, gathering ourselves together. Observing where we are now, what has changed, how far we’ve come, before we go on to the second half of the album, perfectly fine but not as etched in my memory as those first ten songs are. We always remember our roots, so deeply embedded are in us as they are.
Years later, now, my sister finds the album on Spotify. Christmas used to be in a different room in the house, with the vinyl floor and the hole in the wall to see through to the dining table. But things have changed. Christmas at my mother’s house is now in a room with an island, where we have Bluetooth instead of a CD player. Where you fiddle with making it connect instead of shoving the CD in. Where there is no Father Christmas and no father.
But in place of those things, there is more. There is a party. Each of us has bought new family members to the table - husbands, fiancés, cousins and wives who love to join for that day. There is a longer table now, and there are Christmas critters – little woodland animals my mother has collected over the years. My husband helps to put them up on the very high shelves around the room. There are still my mum’s Christmas Eve sausage rolls and there is my brother, baking a pudding, his shoulders free of the weight of knowing things before we did, of having to keep secrets to protect us. There is a smile on his face, a smile on all faces. There is no more checking my phone, waiting for something to fill an emptiness.
Now, as we eat dinner, a different shape of family, the music plays… and if I get my way, it is that same Christmas album, that holds so much experience, so many memories. That speaks to me of the love we held even through the changing times, of singing the Spaceman from deep within, of holding on to those things worth holding on to.
As we reach the final song on the CD, number twenty-one, and I hear the ‘rum, pa-pum, pum’ in David Bowie’s unforgettable voice, I feel no loss, no wistfulness.
I feel full.
The Best Christmas Album in the World… Ever! Track List
1. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) – Jon & Yoko
2. Wonderful Christmastime – Paul McCartney
3. I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday – Wizzard
4. Merry X-Mas Everybody – Slade
5. Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Band Aid
6. 6. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues
7. I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake
8. 2000 Miles – The Pretenders
9. A Spaceman Came Travelling – Chris de Burgh
10. The Power of Love – Frankie Goes to Hollywood … 21. Little Drummer Boy – David Bowie, Bing Crosby