I first heard “Spotlight on Christmas” by Rufus Wainwright, the Christmas Song of the Day for December 20, in 2005. That year, Elton John put together a wonderful CD of some of his favorite Christmas songs for Starbucks coffee shops. Entitled Elton John’s Christmas Party, it sold well enough to make the Billboard charts that year. (An abridged version came out a year later, but missing six songs.)
Many of the songs on Elton John’s Christmas Party rarely appeared on other CDs. This one caught my ear immediately, and it quickly made my short list of songs I love to play and share.
Wainwright (born 1973) is the son of two singers: Loudon Wainwright III, who, despite a long career of many albums, is best known for his novelty song “Dead Skunk,” and Kate McGarrigle. His parents divorced when he was three, and he spent his youth living with his mother in Canada. When he was a teen, he was part of the touring group The McGarrigle Sisters and Family, with whom he sometimes stole the show.
In 1996, he signed with the DreamWorks label, for whom he recorded several critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums. He gained some measure of fame because he recorded Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered “Hallelujah” for the soundtrack album of the movie Shrek (though the version heard in the film is that by John Cale).”Hallelujah” is enough of a signature song for him that, in June 2016, he made a special appearance at Toronto’s Luminato Festival to serve as lead singer for an epic version of the song, accompanied by 1,500 singers from the ad hoc Toronto-based group Choir! Choir! Choir!
Wainwright wrote and recorded “Spotlight on Christmas” for one of the Canadian Nettwerk label’s well-received holiday compilations, Maybe This Christmas Too? That CD, which was released in 2003, started with the spoken “One, two, three, four” of Wainwright’s song.
Two different themes run through the song. One is that we claim to love those who work hard for a living, but we seem to admire the rich more than them – and perhaps, for at least the 12 days of Christmas, we ought to “put the measuring away.” He also references the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in ways that most typical Christmas songs don’t.
The original studio version wasn’t on YouTube for a long time, but it is now.