Every December, there seems to be only a handful of holiday songs, but a multitude of versions of each. This year, we’re throwing down in a Christmas Carol Cage Match to decide the definitive version of some of the most common seasonal cuts. Two of our writers will make a case for either side, but we’re leaving it up to you to decide the winner in our online poll. Check Twitter tomorrow for the results.
The carol: “The Christmas Waltz”
Contender: Nancy Wilson
“Look at all these people dancing to my music.” That’s Joan Holloway—who was Joan Harris, until she accepted an upsetting Christmas gift from Vietnam—in the Mad Men episode that takes its title from “The Christmas Waltz.” It’s her jukebox pick, but I’d argue that Doris Day’s version of “The Christmas Waltz” isn’t the one that really fits the mood. In order to strike the proper mix of melancholy and sauciness for two melancholy Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce employees getting sauced, Joan would have to hold down that Don Draper-adjacent barstool for another two years, when Nancy Wilson’s spin on the Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne standard hit the scene.
The Wilson “Christmas Waltz” is my favorite type of Christmas song, the sort that simultaneously celebrates the season while aching for the idealized holiday that never quite comes to pass. (See also: Her version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, which always gives me nostalgic shivers.) It’s also one of the rare renditions that gets creative within its vaunted “three-quarter time,” syncopation in the horns and percussion that ultimately works its way into Wilson’s delivery of the final chorus. Shouldn’t the thing have a little swing in it, rather than stitching itself to the beat (like some versions I won’t speak ill of here)? It’s a song with a dance in its title, after all—it ought to let the singer and the listener shake a little bit of those Christmas blues away. [Erik Adams]
Contender: The Carpenters
After years of seeing them unjustly dipsaraged, I hope that we are now in a more civilized era wherein we can finally come out and call The Carpenters brilliant instead of dorky. Based on repeated viewings of Todd Haynes’ Carpenter short told with Barbie dolls, Superstar (years before he became an Oscar contender with movies like this year’s Carol), I’m not sure about Richard Carpenter, but Karen has always had my heart. Her voice was purely sweet but never saccharin, as it held an intimate sincerity (See also: Garland, Judy.) that made it resonate with those lucky enough to hear it.
Which makes The Carpenters ideal interpreters for the holiday season. Karen is so excited about the homemade pumpkin pie in “Home For The Holidays,” you can practically smell it, and her “Merry Christmas Darling” has to be the most romantic holiday song around. “The Christmas Waltz,” as Erik points out, is a delightful three-quarter time invitation to the season. It sounds like there’s a permanent smile caught in Karen Carpenter’s voice, especially during that “time of year when the world falls in love,” along with a wistfulness that always gave her vocals a needed gravity. So when she wraps up her descriptions of “frosted window panes” and “painted candy canes” and ends the waltz with her very best wishes for the season, like always, she sounds like she’s sending those wishes straight to you. [Gwen Ihnat]