I am not yet a glimmer in my parents’ baby-boomer-pre-pubescent eyes. They are brown-haired children in stocking caps, watching flaky snow dust the farms and fields of Nebraska. My parents won’t meet for another twenty years, each of those years filled days wholly their own. Too, are the milestones and memories they will share simply by living—the springs, summers, falls, twelve whole months followed by the wonder of a good, clean January 1.
Christmas 1967 sounds like needles dropping on vinyl all over the USA. Most mainstream holiday music was written and recorded the decade before my parents were born. Listening to songs like “Silver Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” they stare out their different frosty windows, memorizing the same words.
Fifty years from now, December will be cold. Holiday stations will still pull from a catalog of music penned mostly in the 1940s, the covers and covers of covers, the few additions made each decade thereafter. The canon will remain slim, a fact that might be our cheeriest reminder that there are no new ideas under the sun. As essayists, we should remember this lesson wrapped in cliche—of sun and ideas, of cover songs. Our work is always a reworking of something already known.
And yet in 1967, there is a certain freshness. People are calling it “The Sound of Young America,” which sounds, characteristically, like an electric bassline progressing alongside bright horns and strings, a tambourine sprinkle, and the echo of background vocalists who sway in unison. In it’s factory-like production, Berry Gordy and the artists his family represents manufacture hit after hit, overwhelming the charts with the infectious charm of “The Motown Sound.” If the Gordys can weld from the roots of soul and Detroit’s winter air a new kind of expression, then why not make a few Christmas records, too?
Motown’s Stevie Wonder drops his first holiday record, Someday at Christmas. The album opens with a heartfelt appeal for peace on earth, is filled with familiar hymns and classics, and closes with what seems like a bare interrogation of meaning. Lyrically, it is as if the song ”What Christmas Means to Me” is an answer to a question that’s been cut from the track, a prompt that’s been cut from the page. Wonder belts out a list—candles, mistletoe, snow, ice, singing, all these things and more.
It’s that move toward expansiveness at the end of the verse that makes the song appealing. One word creates just enough of a void for his audience to fill. Christmas, Wonder suggests, is a collection of seasonal particulars, but within this idea there is plenty of room for specifics, for whatever “more” means when Stevie sings it to you.
All year, we’ve been preparing for the move into our new home. Maybe 1992 sounds like a song you know—my parents take out a mortgage, make a downpayment, clear trees from the property, and lay a foundation. Here are the particulars, our variation the theme. A baby is born, my younger sister. Two semis haul our halved modular home down Highway 81, where the pieces will finally rest beside each other, made whole.
1992 is my parents all grown up in the place my sister and I will.
Perhaps a home, like any lasting idea or piece of Christmas music, is destined to be reused, rewritten, rearranged, replayed. But in 1992, my parents are just beginning to make this home. They are not considering how with each new set of occupants, our house might retain the essence of us, but always, the people who inhabit it will make it come alive.
Stevie Wonder’s list of what Christmas means remains his, unclouded and unchanged, for twenty-five years. But the feeling he creates by making his personal so expansive primes the song for sing-a-longs and adaptations. In 1992, Paul Young records the first cover of “What Christmas Means to Me,” singing through the words perfected by Motown’s top writers, as if they originated somewhere inside himself.
A cover is the ultimate sign a Christmas song has joined the canon. With this nod, Paul Young affirms “What Christmas Means to Me” will last.
His cover features a metallic pop twinkle and an electronic synth crossing the invisible boundary of a decade, quieting the original bassline. He stumbles over Wonder’s syncopation, but perhaps his changes are his point. As an artist, he can’t simply reproduce something he doesn’t feel, and what he feels is a variation, a slightly different idea of what Christmas, indeed, means to him. He is adding style, repainting the walls a different color.
That’s the business Berry Gordy had in mind—creating a body of music that could infiltrate popular culture and float itself seamlessly into the mainstream. Music that prompts the performer and audience to agree on meaning. Music that taps into something—an idea, a melody—that can face the passing decades of cultural change.
But an essayist could never truly operate like a cover artist. That would look something like Joan Didion in her childhood home, keeping notebooks and copying Hemingway sentences onto her typewriter to see how they work. She was a child then, not the writer we know. But the practice was important. The repetition and muscle memory built by writing good sentences influenced the rhythm, style, and music that would later emanate from her own. She likes telling the story of her development.
In 1997, I haphazardly wrap presents in our still-unfinished basement with a cassette on the deck. My mother tells me a story. She worked for a season at a JC Penney, wrapping boxes for customers and printing gift receipts. That’s where she learned to make the perfect folds and creases, pull the wrapping taught around each box, and tie uniform gold bows. By measuring and making the right cuts, she’s showing me how to save paper and make something beautiful.
Hanson’s Snowed In is a new release this year, but many of the tracks are decades old. I wrap presents to the background noise of Hanson’s renditions of “Little Saint Nick,” “Run Rudolph Run,” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” This is my parents’ Christmas music shined through the 90s pop machine. And though Hanson’s version of “What Christmas Means to Me” is not the shiny tree topper of the Motown original, I will remember it as my original, the first time I ever heard the words: that’s what Christmas means to me, my love.
Hanson’s performance is reminiscent of young Motown artists—obvious talent coupled with the potential for grooming. Or maybe, it’s simply the fact that the three Hansons are brothers, just like the Jackson Five. Is it any wonder their Christmas album includes a Motown song?
Taylor careens the familiar corners of the melody, smoothing forward in an adolescent candor first made famous in the hit “Mmmbop.” In “What Christmas Means to Me,” Taylor adds a series of the band’s signature nonsense syllables—oh-e-oh-e-oh-e-oh-oh—to the usual pauses in the refrain.
Taylor’s ohs sound more authentic than the words that precede them. They shatter the illusion that Taylor could draw from the same feeling Stevie Wonder did when he recorded it. Who is the fourteen-year-old in love with? Taylor fills the space in the song a listener might otherwise use to consider this question. When I do think too much about it, the song, as pretty as it sounds in my favorite recording, begins to unravel.
Only with perspective will I learn Hanson’s version is a cover, which I won’t identify as part of Stevie Wonder’s catalogue until, ashamedly, well into college.
2012 sounds like a revival or return, a real growing up. I am driving my Jeep toward my hometown, across its snowy farms and fields of Nebraska. The snow sometimes drifts so high they shut down this stretch of highway, but I’ve driven these roads enough to know my way around them, confidently, in any weather. That, and my Jeep has four-wheel drive.
CeeLo Green’s 2012 holiday album, CeeLo’s Magic Moment, features similar force. The thumbnail art captures the essence—three white horses pulling Santa CeeLo in a sleigh, truly classic. The music on the record sounds so classic, too, bringing to popular consciousness a new cover of “What Christmas Means to Me.”
It’s CeeLo’s cover of the song, more than any other, that most closely aligns with the original magic—a Motown-centric emphasis on horns, a loud shake of jingle bells. This version strips away all the previous changes, additions, strange syncopations, and added sounds, restoring the song to its initial luster. It’s almost as if Stevie Wonder himself has returned to the Motown studio to sing.
I identify with that feeling of return, of finding myself in a familiar place I haven’t been in awhile.
And while I used to think what I liked about this song had to do with the list—most of America and I sharing Stevie Wonder’s particular fondness for things like holly, singing, trees, and pretty lights—I now see my affection has more to do with the kind of reflective thinking that prompted the list in the first place. When Anna Gaye, Allen Story, and George Gordy sat down to write, they gave themselves an impossible task. They wanted to write a song that plainly conveyed the meaning of Christmas.
Popular culture has long been fascinated with the idea. The myth goes: if we slow down and strip away the extraneous, we can get to the heart of the holidays, be it through the lens of a Hallmark movie or snowman-melting commercial. What Christmas means has to be grounded in images anyone can access.
I like that the song fails. This should tell us something we already know—the meaning of Christmas is as elusive as truth. The only way to get close to something like that is to write what it means to you.
Author’s note: The rough edges of the “What Christmas Means to Me” timeline have been smoothed for your reading pleasure, though a bulk of amusing and truly terrible covers abound on the internet. For a more complete, uncurated dive into the subject matter, consult this comprehensive Spotify playlist.
*Erica Trabold's essays have appeared or are forthcoming in places like Seneca Review, The Collagist, Proximity, South Dakota Review, and Passages North. A graduate of Oregon State University’s MFA program, she writes and lives in Portland. Send her your work! Erica is currently guest-editing an issue of Proximity and seeking nonfiction submissions that fit the theme "reuse."