An Unseasonal Defense of Bob Dylan’s “Christmas In the Heart”
In an otherwise wonderfully insightful review of a new Bob Dylan tribute album, Grantland’s Steven Hyden took a few opportunities to take a big, steamy dump on Dylan’s 2009 Christmas In the Heart. He refers to it as “that batshit Christmas album” and ranks it as Dylan’s second worst opus ever.
I humbly disagree.
That album is absolute fucking gold. I’ve listened to it every Christmas for five years now, and I will continue to do so until I die. When I have kids, their strongest Christmas memories will be of a snarling but friendly gravel-monster growling “Here Comes Santa Claus” at them from the depths of whatever replaces speakers in 15 years. I’ve written about my deep love of Dylan in these pages before, and while Christmas In the Heart is unlike most of Dylan’s albums (he didn’t write a single word of it) it does showcase parts of the bard that even his most diehard fans would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in his catalog.
To start with, we should consider the purpose of a Christmas album. Very few of them feature original compositions. Most instead feature a well-known musician taking a canon of songs and tropes and channeling them.1 Christmas In the Heart is not the place for Dylan to renew his credentials as the iconoclastic poet of rock. It’s about him taking that recognized persona and playing around with it, putting that character into a cultural situation to which we all have some sort of connection. Dylan’s egoless exploration of how the public persona he’s spent half a century building, the mysterious, growling mystic, responds to a holiday that’s celebrated by going back to the people who knew you before you became who you are is fascinating and, more importantly, fun.
A Christmas album also serves another important, if less artistic, purpose: It’s for listening to at Christmastime, with the people you spend Christmas with – your family, in whatever form it takes. It’s on this function that Christmas In the Heart really wins me over. The instrumentation and the backing chorus give the feel of an old, ex-hippie uncle sitting by the fire with his guitar leading the family in song, with some cousin jumping in with her fiddle and the grandkids banging out the occasional percussion on the floor. Dylan recognizes and rejoices in the ridiculousness of his proclamatory delivery of the Latin lyrics of “Adeste Fideles” in his mangled rasp; when I hear it I imagine him singing with a big snarling grin on his face. Throughout this album I hear in Dylan’s voice the quality I hear in my dad and uncle’s voices every Passover as they drunkenly sing Chad Gadya.2 It’s the joy in knowing both how ridiculous you sound and how little it matters among people who know you as well as your family does. We’ve known Dylan for 50 years. He trusts us enough to have fun with us, and I love him all the more for it.
It’s this factor that might be most important. In Hyden’s review, he laments that in the music Dylan has made since his resurgence on Time Out of Mind, he has necessarily transformed himself into a distant silhouette. In order to recover his identity as an artist, “his humanity…became obscured behind sepia-tinted sonics.” Well, if you want to find Bob Dylan the person in any of his work since the end of the Cold War, Christmas In the Heart is the place to look. The human Dylan we have now is different than the one we knew in his prime, as any 70-year-old is much different than their 25-year-old self. This Dylan has given up his anger, and is instead reminiscing about the life he’s had so far and enjoying, though sometimes worrying about, the life still to come. Christmas In the Heart gives us the clearest look at the person behind the persona of any modern Dylan album, and arguably of any Dylan album at all.
I won’t pretend that there isn’t a personal element to my love of Christmas In the Heart, though I would imagine that personal connection is the point of such music. The first time I listened to this album was at a family dinner when I was home for winter break from my freshman year of college. I waited to listen to it with my parents because that’s where my long-time love of Dylan comes from. Growing up, my dad would play Blonde on Blonde in the car. My first cassette was Dylan’s admittedly awful 1973 eponymous album of covers, though as a six year old I quite liked his version of “Big Yellow Taxi.” When I started playing saxophone, I bought a book of sheet music for everything from The Essential Bob Dylan. Dylan has been part of my family since before I can remember, and when I listen to Christmas In the Heart, I feel like I’m part of his. Merry Christmas, Uncle Bob.