The first time I heard my Christmas Song of the Day for December 7, I heard it as a live recording. By that time, the singer’s audiences were already so familiar with it that they half sang along and half shouted it, which ruined it for me. Once I heard the original studio version, I realized how funny and enjoyable it is.
In some ways, “Merry Christmas from the Family” is a description of the ultimate Texas family gathering, with relatives pouring in from all over the place (Harlingen is mentioned specifically). One has a significant other of different ethnicity; another has five children from two prior marriages and a third wife who is in a twelve-step program; another brings a mobile home that causes the lights to short out when it’s plugged in. And finally, the singer admits there’s one relative that he can’t remember how they’re related. Amid all the tumult, the song is punctuated by drinking, television, trips to convenience stores for refills, and Christmas carols, including “Silent Night,” “Feliz Navidad” and “The First Noel.”
Robert Earl Keen (born 1956), who wrote the song, evidently didn’t base it on direct personal experience. He was trying to compose some new music just before Christmas one year in the early 1990s; suddenly, he realized that there had never been a holiday song about Houston, or about much of anywhere that lacks snow during the season. He started to sing what he thought was a silly song about a bizarre family gathering. For the longest time, he kept it for his own personal amusement, until he finally used it on his 1994 album Gringo Honeymoon. The album, which otherwise had nothing to do with Christmas, was quietly released in August 1994.
To his surprise, “Merry Christmas from the Family” became his signature song. Keen has had numerous people tell him over the years that the song reminded them of their own crazy holiday gatherings. By 1996, Keen’s ditty had become a sing-along at his concerts, as I mentioned earlier; today, he strictly limits when he sings it, in order to keep it fresh. Not bad considering that he wrote the song as a lark mostly to entertain himself during a period of writer’s block.
Shortly after Gringo Honeymoon hit the market, alternative rocker Jill Sobule recorded a cover that first appeared on the 1994 promo-only CD You Sleigh Me. It was so obscure at the time that the label didn’t know what it was called and labeled it as “Xmas Song.” (By the time a commercial version of You Sleigh Me was released in 1996, her label knew the title.) In the years since, “Merry Christmas from the Family” has been recorded by many artists, from the Dixie Chicks to Montgomery Gentry, the latter of whom had a top-40 country hit with their version.But I still like to go back to Robert Earl Keen’s original studio version, when it was still brand-new.
Just for kicks, here’s Jill Sobule’s cover from the same year as the original.