CSOTD 12/31/21: You know where to find me at 11:59

Another year of the Christmas Song of the Day ends today. I hope these daily entries have enlightened you and made your holiday season brighter.

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 31 comes from a woman who became nationally famous on June 8, 2021. On that day, a beguiling singer who called herself Nightbirde appeared on America’s Got Talent and sang an abridged version of her composition “It’s OK.” The lyrics summed up a year of trauma and change, punctuated with her declaration, “It’s OK if you’re lost/We’re all a little lost, and it’s all right.” Famous curmudgeon Simon Cowell gave Nightbirde his Golden Buzzer to advance her directly to the live shows. But she had to drop out before continuing; part of her story is a long battle with metastatic breast cancer, and it had returned with a vengeance.

Before she was Nightbirde, she was Jane Marczewski — or, to be more complete, Jane Kristen Marczewski (born December 29, 1990). The second of four children, she grew up in a competitive family; though she dabbled in many things, music captured her fancy from a young age. At age 6, Marczewski wrote her first song, a song about the Three Wise Men and the star in the East for her church’s annual Christmas play. In 2001, she appeared in an American Idol-style talent show in her home town of Zanesville, Ohio. By the time she was a senior in high school, she was a worship leader, singing and playing guitar at Vineyard Grace Fellowship in Newark, Ohio.

Marczewski originally planned to attend Ohio State for college, but, with encouragement from her mother, she instead went far from home, to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Once there, she auditioned for the various worship teams on campus, but she wasn’t good enough, or so she claimed in a 2019 interview.

In a classic example of “when one door closes, another one opens,” she began writing songs seriously for the first time. She wrote as a comment on one of her early videos: “Few of my songs are for a church setting, but they all have Christian influences.” In May 2012, she released a three-song EP called Lines, which appears to be Internet-only (no hard copies). That led to her first live performances in clubs in and around Lynchburg.

That December, she teamed with a friend in a duo called Bangs and Beards, which performed the mashup “Bieber It’s Cold Outside” (combining “Baby” by Justin Bieber and “Baby It’s Cold Outside”) at Liberty’s semi-annual coffeehouse show. That same month, she and other friends were recording new music; those sessions were released in April 2013 as Ocean & Sky, a six-song EP that exists as an extremely limited CD in addition to online. (Does anyone reading this have one?)

After graduating from Liberty in 2013, Marczewski stayed in Lynchburg, working as a server at a local eatery as her musical career bloomed. In August 2013, she played her first sold-out gig. In the spring of 2014, she was one of the headliners at Lynchstock, a local music festival. Meanwhile, she continued to write new music; some of those songs are preserved in live performances on YouTube.

From all accounts, she was popular both with audiences and among her fellow Lynchburg musicians. That fall, Lynchburg Living, a local magazine, put her on its cover. Rumors circulated that she was heading to either Nashville or Austin to see if her local stardom could translate nationally. But she was consumed by self-doubt, a feeling that, amidst all the local acclaim, she had lost touch with who she really was. After much prayerful consideration, Marczewski chose to leave Lynchburg and return to Ohio. She gave a “farewell” benefit concert in October 2014 and left, though she would return in April 2015 for one more performance at Lynchstock. Her last new song from this period, “Sunrise of Our Lives,” was included on the digital-only Paste Magazine Lynchstock 2015 Sampler.

By then, a lot had changed. Back in Ohio, she met a musician named Jeremy Claudio, and after a whirlwind romance, they married on July 5, 2015. The two decided to move to Nashville that October, and for a while, she put her musical career on the back burner. One of her older songs appeared in a documentary, Leonard Knight: A Man and His Mountain, late that year, but nothing new was forthcoming. Meanwhile, now known as Jane Claudio, she used her communications degree as a customer service rep for Xerox in Nashville.

In her early years, Marczewski was basically a folk singer with Christian influences, but in Nashville, she began to embrace the pop sounds of the 1980s. When she resumed making music in February 2017, the first released track was “Fly,” which she issued under the name “Jane.”

Before she could do anything else, she received her first diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer in September 2017. Months of chemotherapy followed along with a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. On July 7, 2018, her scans came back, and she was cancer-free. For the next several months, she wrote blog posts, journal entries, and poetry, took a long vacation with her husband, and spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

Meanwhile, she came up with her new stage name. As she wrote on her Facebook page in December 2018: “Woke up in the night three times, dreaming of birds singing in the dark. The third time, I went to the window and they were there—singing morning songs at 3 am. I wanted to be one of them—singing as if it was the morning, though I couldn’t see it yet.” Thus Nightbirde was born.

Her first posting under the new name was a reissue of the Jane song “Fly” in February 2019. She then played her first gig in four years, on April 6, 2019. A friend from Liberty University, knowing of her story, contacted her, asking her to be the opening act for Grammy-winning singer Tori Kelly at the Vines Center on campus. She wrote a new song, “Heartbeat,” for the event, and enthralled the audience for about 45 minutes. She had come full circle.

Nightbirde’s first real single, “Girl in a Bubble,” followed. It received some alt-rock airplay, and she posted enthusiastically when the song reached 50,000 streams. She even shot a music video and made a separate live video at the now-defunct Speakertree Records in Lynchburg. She also began to get gigs in Nashville, and in December 2019, she played three nights at a Christmas festival in Coventry, England. Things seemed to be going well.

But on New Year’s Eve of 2019, Nightbirde found out that the cancer had returned. Tumors were all over her body, and she was given three to six months to live. To add to her pain, her husband decided he’d had enough, and in February 2020, she announced her marriage was ending. (The divorce became final several months later, and offstage, she reverted to her birth surname of Marczewski.) She relocated to Los Angeles, where she underwent experimental treatments for her cancer. She outlived her prognosis, and once again, in the late spring of 2020, her scans came back cancer-free.

In the meantime, Nightbirde recorded the original, dance-pop version of her song “It’s OK,” which came out in August 2020. She also briefly returned to Nashville to record a live piano-ballad version of the song, which served as the basis of her AGT audition; this was posted in January 2021.

Alas, Nightbirde announced in late January 2021 that, after the hard year she’d had in 2020, her cancer had returned for the third time. She was still dealing with it when her AGT audition was taped in April, and she still felt reasonably good when it aired in June, but when her health took a turn for the worse later in the summer, she chose to drop out of the competition. Despite premature reports around the Internet that she has died, fortunately she is still with us — struggling to be sure, but still hopeful of long-term survival. (See update below.)

I hope at some point that as much of her music as possible, old and new, can be compiled in physical form rather than willy-nilly across various web locations. More importantly, I hope she lives long and prospers.

Before her AGT appearance, Nightbirde recorded another new song, “New Year’s Eve,” which first appeared on the various music streaming sites on November 26, 2020. Once again, she sings about how hard a year it was, but she wants to celebrate nonetheless: “I want to kiss someone who loves me on New Year’s Eve.” I can relate. It’s my Christmas Song of the Day for December 31. Happy New Year, everyone!

Sad update: Jane Marczewski passed away on February 19, 2022 after battling cancer for four years.

CSOTD 12/30/21: December’s Fourth of July

I have memories of my Christmas Song of the Day for December 30 that go back to my youth, but I hadn’t heard it in years until I decided it should be included this year. It’s a fun song that deserves more airplay — “Christmas Is the Warmest Time of the Year” by Ed Ames.

Ames (born Edmund Dantes Urick in 1927) was originally one of the singing Ames Brothers, who had numerous hit singles in the 1950s, including the 1950 #1 hit “Rag Mop.” They were on the Coral label in their earliest years, but in 1953 they moved to RCA Victor. The first single on their new label, “You You You,” hit #2 on the Billboard best-seller charts. They would continue to have hits into the rock ‘n’ roll years, but after several early-1960s singles on the Epic label failed, the Ames Brothers basically hung up the act.

Meanwhile, Ed Ames, who in the 1950s did a couple solo singles as “Eddie Ames,” became famous as an actor on Broadway. Though he has no Native blood — his parents were Ukrainian Jews — Ed was often cast as a Native American because of his looks. Discovered in a Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ames was cast as Mingo, a Cherokee tribesman, in the popular NBC television series Daniel Boone.

Around the time Ames was on Broadway, he resumed his recording career as a solo act. His biggest hit came in 1967 with “My Cup Runneth Over,” which made the Top 10 on the pop charts and #1 on the easy listening charts. The hits began to dry up by 1970, and his last 45 came out in 1973.

In 1967, Ames recorded Christmas with Ed Ames, which peaked at #11 on the special Billboard Christmas album chart that year and #12 in 1968, but failed to become a perennial. Near the end of his time at RCA, he made one more Christmas album, which failed to chart at all. Entitled Christmas Is the Warmest Time of the Year, the title song is a should-be classic.

Written by Alfonse “Al” Semola (1919-1999), a composer, arranger and pianist in Las Vegas for decades, “Christmas Is the Warmest Time of the Year” does not take its title literally, of course; it’s the feelings of the season that create the warmth. To me, the arrangement bears a passing resemblance to Andy Williams’ much more famous “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which, to be fair, wasn’t all that well known in 1970, either, certainly not the way it is today.

Ames’ “Christmas Is the Warmest Time of the Year” is so obscure that a completely different song with the same title exists, co-written and recorded by Aaron Tippin on his 2001 album A Christmas to Remember. In fact, if you try to find the lyrics to the Ames song, it’s the Tippin song that pops up most frequently. But today, let’s enjoy the dulcet tones of Ed Ames on my Christmas Song of the Day for December 30.

CSOTD 12/29/21: Love shall be our token

The Christmas Song of the Day for December 29 is a new version of an old song.

Before the 20th century, it was not uncommon for a newly written poem to be set to music using an already existing melody. Usually, one of these combinations eventually stuck and became the definitive version. Virtually every song that we still recognize from before 1900, including patriotic fare such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” and countless Christmas songs including “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “What Child Is This,” came to be in that manner. Once in a great while, two melodies became the most popular; probably the most famous example is “Away in a Manger,” which is sung to a different tune in England than it is in the United States.

Sometimes, no melody becomes the standard, and those poems get lost in the shuffle. Such was the fate of “Love Came Down at Christmas,” written by British poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894).

Long-time followers of the Christmas Song of the Day may remember that I featured Rossetti’s poetry once before; on December 8, 2016, I shone the spotlight on “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Today’s three-stanza poem, untitled at the time, was first published in her devotional book, Time Flies: A Reading Diary, published in 1885. Today, many Christians still use devotionals to aid in their walk with Christ, especially during the Lenten season; Rossetti’s text had a thought for every day of the year. “Love Came Down at Christmas” was her December 29 entry:

At least five different melodies exist for the poem, which may be why, despite its brevity (12 lines) and simplicity, has never caught on as a part of the Christmas canon.

Trying to correct that issue is contemporary Christian band Jars of Clay.

In the secular world, the group is a one-hit wonder; their first single, “Flood,” was an unexpected Top 40 hit in June 1996. But in their usual realm, the band has had multiple hit songs and numerous albums, one of which even made the top 10 on the secular pop charts.

In 2007, they recorded a full-length Christmas album called, simply, Christmas Songs. The first video from the album was for their version of “Love Came Down at Christmas.” The Jars of Clay arrangement also incorporates lyrics from the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee” as the song fades out. Finally, that 1885 poem has a recognizable version.

This song gets some play during the holiday season on Christian radio, but almost none on pop radio. Today, enjoy the 2007 recording of “Love Came Down at Christmas” by Jars of Clay.

(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 4, 2014.)

CSOTD 12/28/21: Together, wishing on a shining star

Ten or 15 years ago, my Christmas Song of the Day for December 28 was played so often on the radio, especially by stations affiliated with the Clear Channel chain, that this formerly rare track appeared on many annual radio-station Christmas compilations, back when those were a thing. In many markets where Clear Channel had radio stations with a holiday format, these CDs, which always had songs you were all but guaranteed to hear on the local station, were usually sold in a non-traditional location and raised money for various local charities.

I know of six different CDs in the Clear Channel series, which were released in different years in different markets with slightly different names. In 2006, leftovers from five of the six CDs were repackaged for the F.Y.E. chain as Holiday Hits Vol. 1 through Holiday Hits Vol. 5. If one looks closely at the discs, one can see that the label side was basically painted over; the print from the former radio-station CD can be seen through it, especially under a light.

Looking at these discs 15 years later, roughly 80 percent of the tracks remain part of the Christmas canon on holiday radio stations. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 28 is one of the 20 percent that rarely gets played today, at least where I listen.

It’s a really pretty, if short, song from a band that was struggling to hold on.

From 1976 to 1978, the band Firefall was one of the most popular in the United States. Founded by former members of several rock groups, including the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, Jo Jo Gunne, Gram Parsons’ Fallen Angels, and more, Firefall made the top 10 with its second single, “You Are the Woman” in 1976. Two more singles that just missed the top 10 followed, “Just Remember I Love You” in 1977 and “Strange Way” in 1978.

But the hits dried up, and numerous members left. The band was dropped by its record label, Atlantic, and all but broke up.

By 1982, only one original member was left, guitarist Jock Bartley. That year, John Sambataro and Chuck Kirkpatrick, both multi-instrumentalists with long pedigrees in rock, made Firefall a threesome. Augmented by studio musicians, the new band released the album Break of Dawn, but it failed to set the world afire, peaking at a mere #199 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart.

During the sessions for Break of Dawn, Firefall recorded “Christmas in Love.” Written by John and Cathy Sambataro with Bartley, it was barely released. Atlantic only released the song on promo-only 45s during the holiday season of 1982. Some copies have the single “Always,” which peaked at #59 pop and #24 adult contemporary in early 1983, on the other side; others have “Christmas in Love” on both sides. Both versions have the same catalog number (PR 473).

For almost 20 years, the song was all but forgotten. Then it was revived in probably the early 2000s by a programmer at a radio station with a Christmas format, to the point where, I’ll admit, I started to get tired of hearing it.

Today, though, if I hear it once a season, it’s a surprise. Not even Delilah plays it very much any more.

Here’s “Christmas in Love” by Firefall.

CSOTD 12/27/21: At least two sizes too large

It’s now been 10 years since one of my favorite Christmas radio stations of all time played its last “Feliz Navidad.” Today, I want to pay a small tribute by naming a song I first heard on that station as my Christmas Song of the Day for December 27.

From about 1997 to 2011, the go-to radio station in the Stevens Point-Wausau, Wisconsin, area for holiday cheer was WLJY-FM. Originally at 106.5 FM, the company that owned the station moved the call letters and format to 96.7 in 2006. Then, in 2012, the station switched from adult contemporary to Top 40. During the Christmas season of 2012, no commercial station in the Stevens Point-Wausau market switched to a holiday-music format. The only station in the market that played Christmas music that year was a left-of-the-dial Christian station, and its ratings, usually minuscule, jumped significantly that season.

Anyway, WLJY had a person on staff that helped to program the Christmas music, whose name I’ve long since forgotten. In addition to the usual fare, he would slip in sone really neat obscurities to break things up. (Indeed, if I were programming a commercial Christmas station, it would sound pretty close to what WLJY was doing in those years.) One of those obscurities remains one of the funniest Christmas songs I’ve ever heard.

It’s easily the most obscure part of his legacy, but Mel Blanc (1908-1989), the “Man of a Thousand Voices” for Warner Bros. cartoons and elsewhere, was a major recording star, too. Shortly after Capitol Records executive Alan Livingston (1917-2009) created the character of Bozo the Clown and hired Pinto Colvig to be his voice, Livingston brought Blanc to Capitol Records. For 10 years, Blanc voiced the familiar Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Tweety, Sylvester the cat, and Woody Woodpecker (a Walter Lantz production and not Warner Bros.), among others, for a series of children’s story albums for Capitol, many of which stayed in print for years. Surprisingly, Blanc also crossed over to adults; his 1948 version of “Woody Woodpecker” with the Sportsmen got to #2 on the pop charts, and his 1951 single “I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat” also made the top 10.

Eventually, children’s records stopped selling at Capitol, a combination of the influence of television and the growth of kids’ budget labels. After 10 years at Capitol, Blanc went to the then-new Warner Bros. label. In 1962, moonlighting for the Dot label, he was the uncredited voice of the title character in Pat Boone’s last Top 10 hit, “Speedy Gonzales.”

One of Blanc’s last singles for Capitol, released in November 1957, used the Speedy voice on the lament of the oversized gift, “The Hat I Got for Christmas Is Too Beeg.” The poor fellow could solve his problems by simply removing his sombrero, but he stubbornly refuses, and increasingly funny hijinks are the result. What really makes the song, written by Marve Fisher (1907-1957) and David Gussin (1899-1976), is its chorus, in which our hapless hero chooses to “ring the bells and beat the drum” anyway. Oh yes, that mariachi trumpet and violin add to it as well.

It was in 2011 when I remember hearing “The Hat I Got for Christmas Is Too Beeg” on WLJY radio when my then-girlfriend and I were on our way to Wausau to take part in a holiday choir concert. We both had a good laugh over it, as I recall. As time went on, we had fewer shared moments like that.

Anyway, here’s Mel Blanc with the tale of the woeful gift:

CSOTD 12/26/21: The tree of life

The Christmas season isn’t over yet!

I know that when I used to go out shopping on December 26, I wished the radio stations that started playing Christmas music on Halloween or thereabouts gave the season a gentle denouement rather than an abrupt cutoff at 12:01 a.m. the day after the holiday (or even 6:01 p.m. on December 25 itself).

Even as the department stores clear out their leftover Christmas merchandise to prepare for the influx of Valentine’s Day stuff, the Christmas Song of the Day goes on as before. We’ll continue until the end of the month, so stay with us.

Over the years, Christ has been compared metaphorically in song to lots of things in nature, both inside and outside the Christmas season. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 26 is one of the most unusual, but the carol itself is gorgeous and deserves wider attention.

Despite generations of claims otherwise, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is not an American folk song, but is British in origin.

Its first publication was in August 1761, in a monthly journal called The Spiritual Magazine. A reader identified in print only as “R.H.” submitted a seven-stanza poem, which he declared as “Christ compared to an Apple-tree.” Recent research has found that the most likely composer was Richard Hutchins, a Baptist minister in Northamptonshire, about whom little is known except for the tenure at his church.

The poem soon crossed the ocean to the United States; it first appeared in an American hymnal compiled by Baptist minister Joshua Smith in 1784 in New Hampshire. The poem spread throughout the nation and was all but lost in England; because of this, until the late 20th century and possibly into the 21st century, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” was thought to be of American origin.

So why Jesus as apple tree? Here are just a few possibilities:

— A reference to an apple tree is in the biblical Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), chapter 2, verse 3: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.”

— Also, though the text doesn’t support it, the fruit that caused the fall of man in the Genesis story traditionally was said to be an apple.

— It also may be an attempt to co-opt a pagan practice for Christianity, which is common throughout our Christmas traditions. In England at the time, and to this day in America, a popular fall beverage is apple cider, or wassail; a tradition in parts of England was for the locals to serenade the trees, which became known as wassailing. Both the modern traditions of caroling and trick-or-treating can be traced, at least in part, to this.

— Finally, the apple was seen as a source of life. Apples in their abundance are nutritious and delicious; the first apple harvest at the Jamestown colony is generally credited with saving the settlement from extinction. Later, after the song’s publication, the 19th century story of Johnny Appleseed planting apple trees throughout the land is an enduring American myth.

Put all that together, and one gets “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” an enduring protector and fount of life and sustenance.

In the U.S., the words were set to a sprightly tune by Vermont church hymnist and tavern keeper Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838) in an early 19th century hymnal, The Christian Harmony. Probably the most familiar version today, if any can be said to be familiar at all, is a slower melody written in 1967 by English composer Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987).

I’d heard of “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” before I heard it. The one that made me notice was from a long-out-of-print 1997 album called The Soul of Christmas: A Celtic Music Celebration, which was essentially a CD-sized 72-page hardbound book with two discs inside, one of music and one of words. The album was curated by Thomas Moore (born 1940), then famous for his best-selling 1993 book Care of the Soul. On this album, which was produced by Johnny Cunningham (1957-2003), the Poston melody of “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” was sung as a duet by Irish singer Susan McKeown (born 1967) and Canadian-born Nikki Matheson (born circa 1956).

It took two decades for this, my favorite version of the song, to show up on YouTube. Here are McKeown and Matheson singing “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.”

CSOTD 12/25/21: God is not dead, nor doth he sleep

Merry Christmas! I hope today finds you filled with comfort and joy, however you celebrate the season. Thank you for reading these stories, and I hope they have enriched your holidays in some way. By the way, as always, these features will continue until the end of the year, so stay tuned.

The Christmas promise of “peace on earth, good will toward men” has been elusive throughout human history. Yet even in the midst of war, some still maintain the hope that this lofty goal can happen. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 25 came from one of America’s greatest poets during the height of one of the most terrible times in U.S. history — the Civil War.

On Christmas Day in 1863 (or 1864 — sources vary), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was consumed by grief. His beloved second wife, Frances Elizabeth Appleton, died on July 10, 1861 in a horrible accident at home in which her dress caught fire; Longfellow never recovered from the loss. Then, in 1863, against his wishes, his eldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union cause in the Civil War and was critically wounded in the Battle of Mine Run (New Hope Church), which took place in Orange County, Virginia from November 27 to December 2, 1863. (In the 1864 origin story, Longfellow also was sorrowful over the death of his friend, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who died May 19, 1864.) Wondering if the accursed war would ever end, but hopeful that it would, Longfellow wrote a seven-stanza poem he called “Christmas Bells.” It first appeared in print in the February 1865 edition of Our Young Folks, a literary magazine for children aged 10-18 published in Boston.

Today, we know this poem as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

The original version of what eventually became known as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (Source: Internet Archive, public domain)

Two of the seven verses are specific to the war and are rarely sung today. But the other five are, although sometimes the order is shuffled.

Longfellow’s poem has been set to music several times. The first known to do so was English composer and organist John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), who in 1872 melded it to a melody known as “Waltham,” which Calkin had composed no later than 1848. This is the version most often found in hymnals, as it has long since passed into the public domain.

Johnny Cash (1932-2003) recorded a nice version of the Calkin melody for his 1963 album The Christmas Spirit.

In 1956, Johnny Marks (1909-1985), already well known as the composer of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” set Longfellow’s words to a new melody. This may be the most familiar version today. Bing Crosby (1903-1977) was the first to record it, on one of his last singles for the Decca label before he became a musical free agent. I am most familiar with it through the 1958 version by Harry Belafonte (born 1927), who recorded it for his album To Wish You a Merry Christmas; a slightly edited version was released as a 45 that year.

Here’s the Belafonte version of the Marks melody, which was the first I heard.

More than 50 years later, Mark Hall (born 1969), lead singer of Contemporary Christian band Casting Crowns, teamed with guitarist Dale Oliver (born 1970) to create yet another new melody for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” This version, which is an interpolation of four stanzas of the Longfellow poem with some linking words, appeared on Casting Crowns’ 2008 Christmas album Peace on Earth and hit #1 on the Billboard Top Christian Songs chart that year.

Whichever version you prefer, or if you find meaning in all of them as I do, Merry Christmas!

(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 8, 2014.)

CSOTD 12/24/21: Peace and love to everyone

It’s almost that time. Depending on when you are reading this, Santa is preparing to make his rounds or is already en route. Few songs reflect that sense of wonder better than my Christmas Song of the Day for December 24.

This wonderful track comes from a duo that, at one time, would have seemed unfathomable, yet their professional and personal relationship has now lasted for three decades.

Ritchie Blackmore (born 1945) is highly regarded in the pantheon of rock guitarists. He was one of the original members of Deep Purple; the band is named after the famous song of that name, Blackmore’s grandmother’s favorite. He appeared on both of the band’s biggest hit singles, “Hush” (1968) and “Smoke on the Water” (1973), before leaving the group. Upon his departure in 1975, he formed a new band called Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, later simply Rainbow, which lasted until 1984; he then re-joined Deep Purple for several albums before leaving for good in 1993. A reunion of Rainbow lasted until 1997. Another Rainbow reunion started in 2015 and continues off and on to this day.

But Blackmore’s primary energy is with the group he created in 1997.

By the time Rainbow was finished, Blackmore had met Candice Night (born 1971), who became both a musical and life partner. Night came backstage to get an autograph after a Rainbow concert in 1989, and the two immediately found they shared many interests, including Renaissance music. They moved in together in 1991 and finally married in 2008.

The two of them formed a group called Blackmore’s Night, which puzzled long-time Blackmore fans because it was a softer, vocalist-centered group with a more acoustic folk flavor; Blackmore himself described the sound of his group as “Mike Oldfield meets Enya.”

In 2005, Blackmore’s Night released an EP of several Christmas-flavored songs, which served as a preview for a full-length CD called Winter Carols in 2006. The lead track from the EP was a new song called “Christmas Eve,” which received some radio attention that year — it peaked at #38 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart — but not a lot in the years since.

The Winter Carols album has been reissued with more material three times (2013, 2017, and 2021), but the original “Christmas Eve” still stands out, with its evocative lyrics of a bucolic winter scene accentuated by Santa’s reindeer. From the first time this song came through the speakers of my stereo when I got the EP in 2005, I’ve loved it, and I hope you will, too.

In preparing today’s entry, I was taken back to December 2005, which was one of the happiest Christmas seasons I’ve had in the 21st century. To be fair, most of the Christmases that I can remember have been at least pretty good, but when one is spending the holidays with a significant other, it’s all the more special. And though the relationship only made it a couple months into 2006, and both of us have long since moved on … well, I hadn’t heard “Christmas Eve” in several years before watching the 2021 video, and memories came flooding back.

Here is Blackmore’s Night with “Christmas Eve.”

(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 23, 2014.)

CSOTD 12/23/21: The pluck of the Irish

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 23 is another one that has been on my radar for a long time. Part of my reticence has been a feeling that I couldn’t do it justice. It’s renowned as the greatest modern Christmas song in both England and Ireland; an hour-long BBC documentary has been done on just this one song. But here in the United States, it’s known by a select few. It’s hardly ever played on the radio here, and probably for good reason, because it would have to be aired either by a non-commercial station or late at night because of some coarse language.

I’ll admit that I didn’t get it the first time I heard it, or even the second. But over time, it has grown on me to the point where parts of the song give me goosebumps and have even made me cry.

Get ready for the convoluted tale of “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl.

In the beginning: 1985

The story starts with the Irish band named The Pogues. The band originally was called Pogue Mahone, the Anglicization of a Celtic phrase meaning “kiss my ass.” When they got signed to the famous UK indie label Stiff, they shortened their name, for obvious reasons.

In 1985, lead singer and songwriter Shane MacGowan (born 1957) and banjoist Jem Finer (born 1955) collaborated on a Christmas song. Sources vary as to why; one source says that their then-producer, Elvis Costello, dared them, and another says the band’s then-manager, Frank Murray, thought it could be interesting if they did. So Finer came up with a tale about a sailor in New York reminiscing about his home in County Clare, Ireland. Finer’s wife didn’t like it; she came up with the idea of a couple having a conversation. MacGowan came up with the melody. The title of the song was taken from the book A Fairy Tale of New York by J.D. Donleavy, written in 1973, which Finer was reading at the time.

The song was evidently close to some final form by the end of 1985, as MacGowan expressed regret in an interview that it would not be out in time for that year’s Christmas #1 competition.

False starts: 1986

With Costello still producing, the Pogues made their first attempt at “Fairytale” in early 1986, during sessions for their EP Poguetry in Motion. At the time, Cait O’Riordan, a then-member of the band, was the female singer going one-on-one with MacGowan. Costello suggested the group change the name to, basically, the first line of the song, “Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank,” which would have all but guaranteed that it wouldn’t get airplay, even before anyone listened to the rest of the words.

After several attempts at the song, the band agreed that it just wasn’t working. Rather than release a version they didn’t like, they put it aside.

Meanwhile, the Pogues made their first tour of the United States in the spring of 1986, and their first stop was New York. MacGowan met several Irish-American actors in New York, and he began to re-shape the lyrics of the song, inspired by the Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in America. At the same time, MacGowan came up with a slower, more dramatic piano intro to go with the faster tempo of the rest of the song.

But trouble back home delayed the next recording attempt. Stiff Records was in financial trouble, and during the turmoil, the Pogues could not release any new material. Also, increasingly stormy band dynamics came to a head when Costello became romantically involved with O’Riordan; she left the group in late 1986, and Costello went with her.

Progress at last: 1987

Eventually, the problems with Stiff were ironed out, and the Pogues were able to start anew with “Fairytale.” Producer Steve Lillywhite was brought in, and the band got to work on what would become the album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. The earliest demos had MacGowan singing both the male and female parts, as they had yet to figure out who would be his foil in the final version.

By August 1987, much of the rest of the album was nearing completion, but the question of the duet partner remained open. Lillywhite unwittingly found the answer at home: His wife was singer Kirsty MacColl (1959-2000).

At the time, MacColl was between recording contracts. In 1979, she had made the Music Week British charts with her song called “They Don’t Know,” which in 1984 would become a worldwide hit, including in the U.S., for Tracey Ullman. Later, in 1981, she had a Top 20 UK hit with “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis,” which she would re-record for American audiences as “There’s a Guy Works Down the Truck Stop, Swears He’s Elvis”; the latter would be her only U.S. single in the 1980s.

With the band’s blessing, Lillywhite took the song to his home studio and had MacColl lay down a guide vocal for whomever would finally play the female role. But when the band heard her, they declared that the search was over. MacGowan later told Mojo magazine, “Kirsty knew exactly the right measure of viciousness and femininity and romance to put into it and she had a very strong character and it came across in a big way.”

MacGowan remade his vocal to match — the two singers never sang together until after the song was finished — and, as the album’s sessions were wrapping up, a harp, French horns, and strings were added.

Success: 1987 and beyond

“Fairytale of New York” was released as the album’s first single in the UK and Ireland in November 1987. The band appeared with MacColl on Top of the Pops to lip-sync the song. And though the song spent five weeks at #1 in Ireland, it stalled at #2 in England; the coveted UK Christmas #1 was another excellent, albeit very different, hit: the Pet Shop Boys’ radical reworking of the former ballad “Always on My Mind,” previously most closely associated with either Elvis Presley or Willie Nelson.

But in the years since, the song has become a perennial, every bit the modern classic in the UK and Ireland as “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey is in the United States. “Fairytale” was re-released in 1991, 2005, and on its 25th anniversary in 2012, and thanks to more liberal chart rules in England, the song has re-entered the Official Charts every year since 2005 — 17 years and counting — and has made the top 5 several times.

Poll after poll has named it one of Britain’s favorite Christmas songs ever, and it even ranks among the favorites of all songs, Christmas or otherwise.

In the U.S., crickets

I’ve featured a few songs as Christmas Song of the Day over the years that are part of the seasonal fabric in the UK but are utterly unknown in the United States. “Fairytale of New York” is no exception.

Island Records, which owned the U.S. rights to the album If I Should Fall from Grace with God, chose not to release the song as a single at all. In Island’s defense, in the years after 1963, exactly two Christmas songs had made the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of 1987, and new Christmas music generally didn’t sell. Island didn’t even issue the song as a promo-only 12-inch single, the most common format for radio-only singles during most of the 1980s, thus all but guaranteeing that the song wouldn’t get played.

I can find evidence of only one Pogues single released to the general public in the United States: a 12-inch single of “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah,” which was on the soundtrack album of the 1989 film Lost Angels. None of their others were, not even “Tuesday Morning,” which I actually heard on the radio enough in 1993 to seek out a UK 45 for my collection. (It got to #11 on the Billboard airplay-only Modern Rock chart, the closest they ever came to an actual U.S. hit.)

Even as the reputation of “Fairytale” has grown, I’ve found only one attempt to release it as a radio single, and that wasn’t by the Pogues’ label. In 1995, the I.R.S. label in the U.S. released Galore, a compilation of Kirsty MacColl singles and key album cuts, and to promote the album, I.R.S. issued a promo-only CD of “Fairtytale of New York” with this ironic cover art (unfortunately, not my copy):

In 1996, Rhino included the song on its excellent compilation New Wave Xmas: Just Can’t Get Enough, one of its rare appearances on CD in the States.

So what’s it all about?

I’ve listened to “Fairytale of New York” frequently over the years, including several times in preparing this entry. I’m going to do my best, without too many spoilers, to explain the song.

To me, each verse of the song is like an act in a play that unfolds over a number of years.

Act I is December 24, sometime close to the present. We hear from the male protagonist first, and from the first line, we learn he’s not an upstanding citizen. He’s been arrested for public drunkenness, and it’s probably not the first time. He’s an Irish immigrant; he recognizes it when an elderly man sings a folk song from the old country. But he tires of it and begins to dream about his woman. We soon sense that our man also has a gambling problem, particularly spending too much time at the track. He celebrates that he finally hit a longshot, and maybe, just maybe, he and his woman will finally have the good year they’ve longed for since they first met.

Act II, based on lyrical clues, is a flashback, probably set in the 1940s. The woman of the couple enters the reverie. She also is an Irish immigrant, part of the Irish diaspora in the years immediately after World War II. He and she have celebrated their first Christmas together; they’ve seen Frank Sinatra sing, and the two are smitten with each other. The scene ends with the choir of the New York Police Department singing a famous old Irish song as bells ring.

Well, things have taken a bad turn as we enter Act III, which also takes place at Christmas, but some years after the idyllic scene in Act II. The dreams have become nightmares. She has descended into drug addiction; he’s a drunken ne’er-do-well. They yell at and insult each other, using rough language. (In real life, this has led to an almost annual battle with British censors over whether the song should be played unedited.) By the time the argument fades out, the sounds of the season are almost mocking them.

Finally, we reach Act IV. This still seems to be part of the man’s dream, so it’s after Act III but before the opening. The couple are still upset, but they confess that their lives are fully entwined and they need each other. But it’s not really a resolution as the tale ends on one more Christmas day. Did they live happily ever after? Probably not. But we don’t know, and that’s part of the song’s appeal. As the song’s long instrumental coda fades out, the couple is seen in the song’s video dancing in the falling snow.

(Also in real life, the NYPD doesn’t have a choir, but it does have a pipe band, which appears in the video singing the only song they could agree that everyone knew — the “Mickey Mouse Club March”!)

Summing it up

As I wrote at the beginning, it took me several listens to finally get beyond the novelty of the song. It wasn’t until I really started to listen to the lyrics that it hit me. When the male sings in the final verse, “I could have been someone,” he is uttering the words of every man who felt like he never made it. But when the woman rebuts, “Well, so could anyone,” perhaps the man’s problems are as much in the mirror as they are with happenstance and bad luck.

Over the years, “Fairytale of New York” has been remade regularly, usually by singers of English or Irish origin, and usually with toned-down language. But there’s nothing like the original. Here, at last, is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 23.

CSOTD 12/22/21: Quiet and soft and slow

I first heard my Christmas Song of the Day for December 22 on a contemporary Christian station, possibly in 2016. I was struck by the vocals and the song’s message, and I hope you will be, too.

Chris Tomlin (born 1972) is one of the biggest names in the “praise and worship” subset of the Contemporary Christian genre. Since making his first album in 1995, many of his songs, and adaptations of old ones, have become part of church services, especially in evangelical Protestant circles. “How Great Is Our God” and “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” are probably the most familiar. Already in 2006, Time magazine called Tomlin possibly the most sung artist anywhere, and his songs are even more a part of the fabric of modern worship now.

In 2009, Tomlin released his first Christmas CD, Glory in the Highest: Christmas Songs of Worship. On the album, which was recorded live in the studio, he had three featured artists who took solo turns, one of whom was Audrey Assad (born 1983).

At the time, Assad was an up-and-comer. Before she appeared with Tomlin on the Christmas album, she had released one lone EP that she sold in brown paper bags with handwritten titles on them. She met Matt Maher, another big name in the CCM industry, who helped steer her to Sparrow Records; the two would marry in 2011 and divorce eight years later.

For Tomlin’s album, Assad brought a song she wrote to the session. Entitled “Winter Snow,” in it she notes that the Son of God came to earth gently, rather than the way God came earlier, in a flood (the story of Noah), a burning bush (to Moses), or a rushing wind (to Ezekiel, and later in the form of the Holy Spirit). Most Christmas songs that note Jesus’ birth mention the humble circumstances, but Assad’s song puts them in a different context, which makes it refreshing.

In recent years, since her divorce and probably earlier, she began to question her faith, and announced early in 2021 that she is no longer a practicing Christian. Regardless, I still hear “Winter Snow” on Christian radio. If you haven’t heard this before, it’s worthy of many listens.