Welcome again to the Christmas Song of the Day! Every day during December, I will spotlight some holiday record that deserves more attention than it gets. Perhaps it’s been lost to time. Perhaps, also, it’s too controversial, too loud, or too whatever to be played by mostly generic Christmas radio stations.
First, to those new to the Christmas Song of the Day: I started doing this on my Facebook page in 2014 as an outlet for my passion for Christmas music. The very first “adult” album my parents let me play on my dad’s stereo system was the 1967 compilation A Very Merry Christmas, which was sold only at W.T. Grant department stores, and I’ve never stopped liking music of the season in all the years since. When I started to collect records on my own in 1973, Christmas records of all kinds formed a part of it. I was thrilled to find 45s of such standards as “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Jimmy Boyd.
By the 1980s, I had quite a holiday assortment, both on 45s and LPs. I started making mix tapes of Christmas music, both by decade and by type of music, and they were a big hit at my mom’s Christmas parties for her friends. In 1995, I became the book editor for vinyl records at Krause Publications, publisher of Goldmine magazine, and two years later, the Goldmine Christmas Record Price Guide hit the market. It didn’t sell very well, but those who did buy it cherished it. There’s a wonderful subset of music collectors who specialize in Christmas music, and it spoke their language. I remember several years later, I was at the former Mammoth Music Mart, a week-long tent sale held in Skokie, Illinois, and I saw a browser using my book to help him find Christmas treasures. I ended up breaking from my usual anonymity in public places and introducing myself. We had a long conversation, and I ended up autographing his book. The Goldmine Christmas Music Price Guide holds a special place in my heart.
After starting the Christmas Song of the Day on my Facebook page in 2014, I moved it to this blog in 2015. I encourage you to scroll backwards through last year’s entries to get a sense of what this is all about; they’re all still here. If you really feel inspired, you can find my Facebook postings from 2014, as all of them are still there, too.
Enough of the introduction – let’s get to the Christmas cheer, shall we?
My Christmas Song of the Day for December 1 isn’t really a song at all. It’s a seven-minute-long morality play that remains every bit as relevant today as it was in 1958, when it was first released.
Stan Freberg (1926-2015) was a man of many talents. He was a voice actor featured in many Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s, though almost always without credit because of Mel Blanc’s contract with the company. (Perhaps his most famous voice was that of Pete Puma, the hapless “whole lot o’ lumps” adversary of Bugs Bunny in Rabbit’s Kin.) In the early 1950s, Freberg signed a recording contract with Capitol; almost all of his recordings were parodies of current popular culture, from soap operas to early rock ‘n’ roll to The Lawrence Welk Show, and they influenced several generations of satirists. His 1953 recording of “St. George and the Dragonet,” a parody of Dragnet with dragon-slayer St. George as the Joe Friday character, spent four weeks at #1 on the Billboard best-seller chart.
In addition to his Capitol recordings, Freberg ventured into television and radio and, finally, advertising. He was one of the first to recognize that humor could sell products just as easily as earnestness. By 1958, Freberg had been working in the field for three years, and he found himself increasingly ticked off by, as he wrote in the liner notes of the single, “the slow but steady invasion of Madison Avenue into Christmas.” (Madison Avenue in New York was to advertising agencies what Wall Street is to business.) He came up with a skit featuring himself as Scrooge, the head of an unnamed ad agency, who hears from his clients of all the ways they are tying their products into the Christmas season. He is stopped short by a small spice merchant named Bob Cratchit (played by Daws Butler). who wants only to wish his customers “peace on earth, good will toward men” for the holiday. This causes outrage among the assembled suits, who, in increasingly over-the-top fashion, demonstrate how “to make Christmas work for you.” Finally, after Cratchit tries to no avail to remind Scrooge “whose birthday we’re celebrating,” it all ends with the orchestra playing a slowed-down version of “Jingle Bells” punctuated by the sound of an old-fashioned cash register. (In the 1980s, Freberg told Chicago radio announcer Ed Schwartz in an interview that he insisted on recording the sound of an actual vintage cash register live, rather than having it dubbed in later or using a prerecorded sound effect. Because of the length of time it took for the register to reset, the only way he could do it was to have Billy May’s orchestra play at a slower tempo. Even then, the breaks had to be perfectly timed or it wouldn’t work. Freberg said their preparation paid off, as they got it correct on the first take.)
To further emphasize the point, Freberg titled his skit “Green Chri$tma$,” with dollar signs replacing the letter S in “Christmas.”
To say that Capitol disliked Freberg’s skewering of Christmas advertising is to put it mildly. The label flatly refused to release his recording, a prerogative it had used several times in the past. But this time, Freberg decided he’d had enough. He later wrote that he contacted Verve Records, a mostly jazz label that sometimes dipped its toes into pop, who agreed to release “Green Chri$tma$” sound unheard. Capitol relented and released his single in 1958, but with little promotional push beyond a picture sleeve on the 45. For obvious reasons, most commercial radio stations refused to play it; despite that, the record still made the top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #44.
Even today, for the same obvious reasons, it’s rarely heard on commercial radio. Though some of the references are dated – cigarette advertising, which is heavily parodied, was banned from American airwaves in 1971 – “Green Chri$tma$” remains even more true today than ever.
Freberg wrote in his 1988 autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh:
“I have no quarrel with companies advertising children’s toys under Christmas trees, or facial cosmetics, or books, or cassette tapes, or luggage, or clothes to wear – things one might normally give as presents to one’s family or friends – even food products, if they seem to be appropriate for Christmas. Guidelines should be apparent to any thinking human being. But unfortunately, as we are all only too painfully aware, blatant Christmas advertising has become as out of control as the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
If you’ve never heard it before, listen as Stan Freberg and company skewer the commercialization of the season.