Becoming a college student made Christmas special again. It was time off from tests and papers and studying, to be sure, but it was also a chance to re-acknowledge my reliance on family and the familiarity of "home." A chance to stop pretending to be an adult, and to resume pretending to be a child. A chance to remember all of the things that make life at home so great (Home-cooked meals! Trees! Good coffee!) and, of course, a chance to remember all the things that made life at home not-so-great. Christmas turned from a holiday into a yearly life event.
Part of the event was its atmosphere, the spirit-of-the-season stuff that started trickling into stores by Halloween and became a firehose of red, green, and white, cinnamon-scented nonsense by Black Friday. And this atmosphere always included the annual rise of Christmas music, from the occasional appearance of a holiday-themed iTunes playlist to full-blown Christmas radio and Muzak stations blaring nonstop.
As a college student, Christmas songs, formerly the annoying musical obligations of the season, took on a bizarre potency for me. They triggered homesickness and joyful anticipation, and even though I still didn't particularly like them, I found myself needing them.
Jump-cut to today: I live at home, in the perpetual suburban limbo that is my "year off." The anxiety of the end of a semester isn't here to make Christmas a relief, and I won't need to fly anywhere to spend time with family. But, for some reason, I'm still attached to those Christmas songs.
I've been able to find a few Christmas Classics that I'm consistently fond of (notably: "O Come Emmanuel" and "White Christmas"), but the irritating reality of a short playlist of culturally entrenched fodder for each year's market-capitalizing cover artists can't be ignored. What's more is that these cover artists seem to do an unusually poor job on Christmas renditions, even when they might be reasonably expected churn out good work (I glance briefly at Michael Bublé). The most important appeal appears to be that of tradition, that even a contemporary pop artist should let the Christmas songs that have held up through history provide the holiday cheer. No need for originality outside of a charming take on the instrumentation of "Silent Night." No need for the new when what we have is Classic.
However, Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick's 2012 Christmas effort, One Christmas at a Time, is not an album full of existing or even wannabe Holiday Classics. It contains no covers, not even of the most obscure Christmas songs (unless you count the inclusion of Coulton's previously released "Christmas is Interesting"), and it doesn't make much of an attempt to reference the traditional "most wonderful time of the year" set of clichés (snow, reindeer, sleigh rides, cozy fires, evergreen trees, etc.) that pervades the standard Holiday repertoire. There is certainly a place for that music, and I'm not suggesting that the classics are in any way bad. But they are a little overused, to the extent that the decision to purchase and listen to a contemporary Christmas album is less about finding what's good and more about finding what's (in some small way) unique or essential.
On the whole, I must say that while I enjoy Coulton and Roderick's album, I don't think it is their best work from a songwriting perspective (I am a big fan of both artists). The notable exception is "The Week Between," an especially charming and especially simple take on the timespan between Christmas and New Year's Eve. So, judging on purely musical grounds, the album doesn't hold my interest for long. What I am interested in, and what makes One Christmas at a Time special, is that it embraces a kind of timeliness and imperfection. Coulton and Roderick never really bring up the idea of an ideal Christmas, instead opting for references to people making the best of unfortunate situations. They acknowledge that the contemporary American Christmas isn't a perfect one. In fact, there probably never was a perfect Christmas. Yet, the songs suggest the season is still worthwhile, and that our efforts to celebrate and to bring family together are not in vain.
I enjoy this refusal to ask for a snowy Christmas or a romantic Christmas or even a peaceful and relaxing Christmas. This is the Christmas album for those who aspire to do the best they can. And, for me, that's what makes this Christmas album the one I needed for Holiday Season 2012.