For the past three years, The A.V. Club has devoted the month of December to reflecting on our favorite holiday entertainments, and this year is no different. It’s a feature so nice, it’s never had the same name twice, and this year it’s the 12 Days Of Non-Denominational Winter Holidays. Kicking things off: the Jackson 5’s 1970 Christmas record.
It’s such an awful feeling, walking into a shopping mall and being reminded via in-store music that there is no such thing as autumn. According to the retail industry, there are no more than a dozen days separating the summer wind-down from the onslaught of the holiday season, which is a pretty awful time of year relative to its reputation. The sober truth is that Christmas isn’t all that fun for adults because it’s just an annual influx of responsibilities. Granted, they’re holly-jolly, pumpkin-spiced responsibilities, but those are no less taxing. And the harbinger of all the parking, shopping, wrapping, exchanging, pot-lucking, and general to-do is the sound of Lady Antebellum’s “The First Noel” wafting from Yankee Candle.
It’s a shame more shops don’t play Jackson 5 Christmas Album as part of their annual conditioning ritual, since it’s the only Christmas pop album that doesn’t blanket me with dread. Sure, there are other worthy Christmas albums produced both before and after The Jackson 5 released its sole Christmas release in October 1970. But Jackson 5 Christmas is tough to compete with because it isn’t—as Christmas records so often are—an inessential brand extension or bait for discography completists. It’s a potent distillation of the spirit of Christmas, an album joyful enough to make me feel like it’s the most wonderful time of the year rather than merely telling me so.
J5’s not-so-secret weapon is Michael Jackson, who in the summer of 1970 recorded the album—their third that year—as he was on the cusp of his 12th birthday. The timing is key: Michael was at the height of his talent as a child prodigy, and Jackson 5 Christmas was one of the final albums the band recorded before Michael’s voice yielded to puberty. The serendipitous timing is what elevates the album above its holiday-pop peers; Michael was still young enough to sing about Christmas with the voice of a child. To enjoy Christmas—like, actually enjoy it—you either have to be a kid or be near a kid, a kid who wants to bake cookies and will believe Santa Claus ate them even if the gingerbread crumbs lodged in Daddy’s beard tell a different story. Playing Jackson 5 Christmas introduces an irrepressibly happy kid into any space.
There’s a sad irony in the youthful jubilation Michael conveys in J5 Christmas because in all likelihood, Michael never had the Christmas the boy on the record is having. The adult Michael was forthcoming about his arduous childhood and how he often felt crushed by the tyranny of his taskmaster father and the pressure of worldwide fame attained before his self-identity had solidified. And he had little time to adapt. One moment, Michael was the eighth of 10 children living in a tiny house in Gary, Indiana with two working-class parents, one of whom was verbally and physically abusive by many accounts. Then, suddenly, he was the nucleus of a massive business concern entwined with the livelihoods of people as much as five times his age. Michael’s admitted fixation with the youth he felt was stolen from him was at the root of the eccentric behavior and child abuse allegations that once made him a tabloid fixture, so it isn’t much of a stretch to assume his childhood Christmases weren’t the stuff of story poems.
But it isn’t just Michael’s age that makes J5 Christmas succeed, it’s his passion. The kid loved to sing and perform as much as most boys his age love pretending to shoot each other or laying waste to ant colonies. So while the vitality in Michael’s performances on the album might not be an outgrowth of legitimate Christmas cheer, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Michael sounds like a kid on Christmas morning on all of J5’s records, and that vigor, combined with his angelic voice, made Michael the ideal vessel for J5 Christmas, a collection of traditional selections and new songs written by Berry Gordy and a murderers’ row of Motown session musicians. Motown released several classic Christmas albums, including The Temptations’ Christmas Card, but when it comes to selling the spirit of the season, there’s no competing with an 11-year-old Michael Jackson.
One notable difference between J5 Christmas and other albums of its kind is that its original songs are among its finest moments. It’s also in the originals where the Jackson boys assert their dominance over The Temptations, whose Christmas Card was released just weeks after J5 Christmas. The Jacksons were the first to record Gordy’s “Give Love On Christmas Day,” but The Temptations went on to record it for a reconstituted version of their Christmas album a decade later. The debate over the best Motown Christmas album is a two-horse race between J5 and The Temps, but “Give Love” is where the Jackson boys pull ahead. The Temps’ version is perfectly fine, featuring Glenn Leonard on lead, but compared to J5’s take, it’s non-alcoholic eggnog at the office holiday party.
Michael was cut from the same cloth as soul prodigies like Stevie Wonder and Billy Preston, and he carried their “mannish boy” mien. He could sound as insouciant as a child and as world-weary as an adult in the same phrase, a talent that neither made “Who’s Loving You” seem above his station, nor “ABC” beneath it. Michael hits the sweet spot between those qualities on “Give Love,” eliminating any mystery behind why Gordy gave J5 the first crack at the song. “Give Love” has a lovely melody, but its lyrics are a clunky indictment of Christmas commercialism that only Michael can properly sell. “No greater gift is there than love” is a wise, precocious sentiment when delivered by a honey-voiced preteen, but it’s a preachy bromide coming from a grown man.
The band’s success hinged on Michael’s ability to harness his youth when a song calls for it, and diminish it when it doesn’t, but to the J5 Christmas’ credit, he spends the majority of the album in kid mode on such classics as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” Michael also leads on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” a wise choice since he was still boyish enough for the song to sound adorable as opposed to an awkward confession of Freudian trauma. At the risk of paying the other Jackson boys short shrift, their harmonies are stunning throughout, and Jermaine takes lead almost as often as his little brother. Jermaine sings “Christmas Won’t Be The Same This Year,” a J5 Christmas original about holiday heartbreak as funky and impeccably arranged as Motown’s most memorable hits, and one of the songs I most look forward to this time of year.
But the lasting gift of J5 Christmas is young Michael’s performance, a rendering of a child’s view of Christmas so beautiful it mows down any cynicism in its path. With any luck, the stores will start playing it more often, which I suspect would be as much of a boon to my sanity as it would to their bottom lines. Hearing a cash-grab Christmas record while working through a shopping list amplifies the commercialism and financial drain that make the holidays exhausting enough to warrant a nap, while J5 Christmas conjures memories of being a giddy kid on Christmas Eve, when sleep was the ultimate imposition.
Tomorrow: Erik Adams has a good old-fashioned Christmas down on the farm with Garfield and friends.