Hark, how the bells ...

Can drive us crazy. Or kindle memories. Or just make us smile. 

Published December 4, 2006

With holiday music playing everywhere, we asked some of our favorite writers (and one beleaguered store clerk) to tell us about the songs that make them say ho ho ho -- or no no no. 

'Happy Holidays Y'all' 

Barbie took a dive. Fran has been drinking. And instead of being nestled all snug in their beds, the children are on the floor, buried in toys.

Happy Holidays Y'all is a musical snapshot of what Christmas has become: Styrofoam and Santa, Tylenol and socket sets. Wal-Mart.

It's the ultimate Christmas carol, sung in Keen's slow Texas twang, backed by a banjo and slurred trombone.

The song's opening line: "There is a Barbie doll in the gravy boat up on Mom's TV set." Who wouldn't want to see the rest of that scene?

In five verses, we watch Ken and Kay crash out in a La-Z-Boy and see Rita snuff her cigarette in an angel ashtray (Kay is trying to quit smoking, so Mom "got her a super value pack of Nicorette"). We find out that Ken got a NordicTrack. Dad gave Mom a flannel robe. And Santa looks an awful lot like Uncle Joe.

The song is so real, it makes me laugh. Instead of dreaming of a white Christmas or longing for yuletides of yore, people in this normal dysfunctional family actually get together - and seem, somehow, to enjoy each other.

It makes me wonder why we aren't more grateful for our own families, no matter their faults, our grudges - or what gift card they bought us. In the shadows of holiday obligations and expectations, stymied by old wounds and outside influences, we sometimes forget to just love and accept each other, cherish our time together, or, as Keen says, "make mimosas on the deck."

The last line quotes Charles Dickens' Tiny Tim. Sort of.

"Merry Christmas everyone, God bless us one and all."

(It had to rhyme with U-Haul.)

'Run Rudolph Run'

Christmas 2002. Seven years into the divorce, and I still can't scrape together a down payment for a house. My two boys and I are hanging on in the second-floor apartment, the one above the warring couple. Late at night, their yelling carries through the floor and keeps my 11-year-old son awake.

Sam doesn't complain. He and his big brother, Nat, almost never complain about anything. Not about the commotion from downstairs, not even about their claustrophobic bedroom. Space is so tight, Sam prefers sleeping in the hall, his head resting on a pillow in the bathroom doorway.

He says he doesn't mind. He insists he likes it, but I know he just wants me to stop worrying. The child's only in fifth grade, but already he sees everything inside me, even the stuff I'm having trouble admitting to myself.

That December, the boys and I string a thousand lights on the tree, bake the King Kong cookies, act like we're living at the North Pole. Our favorite Christmas song - the one we play over and over - is Run Rudolph Run. We like the propulsion of Chuck Berry's guitar, the references to reindeer zooming across the sky like Sabre jets. Rudolph knows how to move.

Sam's big present that year is the black Squier Stratocaster he's been begging for. It's not a house. It's not even a room of his own. Still, the Stratocaster hints at better things to come. When Santa puts it under the tree, he knows just what lyrics to scribble on the wrapping paper.

Said Santa to a boy child, "What have you been longing for?"

"All I want for Christmas is a rock and roll electric guitar."

And then away went Rudolph, whizzing like a shooting star.

'I'll be home for Christmas'

One of the best Christmas songs is also one of the saddest. I'll Be Home for Christmas is the ballad of absent parents, wayward children, troops abroad. The singer - Bing Crosby in the classic World War II version, but everyone from Vanessa Williams to Merle Haggard has done it - begins with an elegaic introduction, sometimes spoken, then delivers the heartfelt pledge to be home for Christmas. "You can count on me."

But as the brief, artfully written lyric quickly makes clear, the song is a lie, even as the achingly beautiful melody enfolds you like an embrace. In fact, the one thing you can count on is that the singer won't be home for Christmas. The promise that "I'll be home for Christmas/If only in my dreams" is bittersweet consolation indeed.

Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again, and that's another message somehow communicated in this deceptively deep song. Not because your home changes necessarily, but because you change.

I'll Be Home for Christmas is the musical equivalent of that Edward Hopper painting of nighthawks huddled at the counter of a diner. None of them look like they'll be going home for Christmas.

'Mr. Heatmiser'

The moment the swing beat starts, Marie Marzi groans.

Most Christmas music blends into the background. It complements the special edition holiday hand lotions and candy-cane-colored gift boxes.

But not this song.

This is Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's cover of Mr. Heatmiser, from the 1974 claymation movie The Year Without a Santa Claus. It's one of 24 tunes on the two-CD set playing at Bath & Body Works this month.

Over and over.

"It's just annoying," said Marzi, 36, a sales associate at the Tyrone Square Mall store. "It's the tone of it. It just bugs me."

It's a loud blend of snarky singing, blaring trombones and the occasional cackle. Four minutes and 20 seconds that seem to go on forever.

The song thumps through the store's sound system at least twice during her three-hour shift. And it sticks in her head for hours after she leaves.

She doesn't know the words yet. But by Christmas, Marzi will know every song by heart. So will thousands of sales associates across the country.

Marzi, wearing a red holiday apron that says "Joy to the girls," said she likes Christmas music.

She enjoys all the other songs on the Bath & Body Works' The Perfect Christmas album, which customers can buy at the store.

But Marzi started getting sick of Mr. Heatmiser the day after Thanksgiving.

"Every time I think, 'Oh gosh. I can't believe I have to hear that one more time,' " she said.

The song is an argument between two of the movie's characters, Mr. Snow Miser and Mr. Heat Miser. The warmer brother gets the final word:

They call me Heat Miser

Whatever I touch

Starts to melt in my clutch

I'm too much!

Too much!

Marie Marzi agrees.

'Mele Kalikimaka'

Growing up in a bitter tundra famous for its torrential blizzards and wicked ice storms - that is, my parents' house circa 1982 - I developed a strange preteen love for Mele Kalikimaka, that yuletide curio teaching us "Hawaii's way to say Merry Christmas to you."

I vividly recall squatting in front our toboggan-sized hi-fi and pubescently dropping the needle (scruuuch!) on Side 2 of Bing's 1955 masterpiece, Merry Christmas. Without fail, I'd catch the final few seconds of penultimate jig Christmas in Killarney ("with all of the folks at home") before the needle settled into the warm tiki groove of steel guitars, drum brushes and the Andrews Sisters.

Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright

The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night.

I'd listen again and again, lost in the vinyl crackle, oblivious to surrounding dysfunction.

Written in 1949 by Honolulu's R. Alex Anderson, Mele Kalikimaka was the ultimate anywhere-but-here holiditty, especially for a 12-year-old who wanted to be anywhere but Westford, Mass., surrounded by Ma and Pa Bickerson. Sure, that little town of Bethlehem sounded divine, but better than Bing's "land where palm trees sway"? Now that was a winter wonderland.

Myriad musicians have covered Mele Kalikimaka, including Bette Midler, Chris Isaak and, naturally, Jimmy Buffett. And almost all of them perform it with a wink and chuckle, as if the up-tempo song were mere kitsch.

That's a mistake. I was only a wee boy the first time I heard Crosby perform the song, but even I could tell that there was a subtle strain of malaise in the man's delivery. Bing didn't want to be wherever he was. He wanted to be in Hawaii, too. And really now, who could blame him?

'O Holy Night '

It's not the words of O Holy Night that capture me; it's the tune. In fact, it's the singing of it, whether as a congregation or listening with rapture to a soloist hit the highest possible notes.

The tune is low and melodious, a lovely lullaby: "Oh, holy night! The stars are brightly shining; it is the night of the dear savior's birth." It's something you can sing to yourself. You hum along, "Long lay the world, in sin and error pining," and the up and down notes recite our pain as if it were the most obvious and pedestrian matter; in fact, you follow along like a horse in its traces, clop clop, CLOP CLOP, clop clop clop clop clop CLOP CLOP, and on you go until you hit the very substantial rest, and then the high, suspended command: "F-A-A-A-LL on your knees, Oh, hear the angel voices!"

And there, if you're like me, you fall apart. We go right into, "O NIGHT diVINE," taken high on "night," and even higher on "divine," and feel there our human desire and the divine possibility merge. We step down from the heights with "O night when Christ was born!" and it's back to the world.

The parking lot beckons, and through the trees and street lamps you glimpse, perhaps, a star. You probably know the painting by van Gogh, Starry Night. The star shines over the distant tiny village, but what we're drawn to is the swirling nighttime sky, so cold and clear and alive: an active love in the universe, not human, but something of us exalted and clarified all the same.

'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' 

Just to be clear: I'm always down with the Grinch.

But for me, that means the 1966 TV masterpiece How the Grinch Stole Christmas, with Boris Karloff as narrator, cartoon legend Chuck Jones as director and voice-over master Thurl Ravenscroft (a.k.a. Tony the Tiger!) singing the signature cut You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.

So imagine my surprise when, as the family was trimming our newly bought Douglas fir, my kids pulled out the CD soundtrack to Jim Carrey's creatively challenged live-action Grinch remake.

My beef's not with Carrey, who is the closest thing to a way-cool cartoon in both the 6-year-old movie and CD. But this soundtrack is packed with also-rans: Smash Mouth. The Eels. Faith Hill. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

Once past Carrey's ambitious reworking of the Grinch theme, you're stuck with a Christmas-themed train wreck of styles, from power pop to rap and whatever it is that the Siberian Orchestra plays. And my kids insist on hearing it all again and again.

It's a new dynamic for me, as my two daughters move into the Disney Channel demographic. To them, Will It Go Round in Circles is a catchy song from That's So Raven co-star Orlando Brown, Do You Believe in Magic is an Aly and A.J. hit and pop music's Material Girl is Hilary Duff.

A cranky dad in the corner muttering about Madonna and Billy Preston soon discovers he is powerless in the face of this kid-focused machine.

So I will grin, dance a little with my girls and pretend Hill's sappy ballad Where Are You Christmas? doesn't make me want to claw my eyes out. Because if Christmas stands for anything these days, it's tolerating the cheesy yuletide eccentricities of the ones you love most.