“So I guess you hate that Mariah Carey song.”
I looked at Raf with shock. “What are you talking about?”
“Christmas music. You were literally just saying how much you hate Christmas music.”
“Oh. Yeah. That sounds like me.”
“So I assume you hate that Mariah Carey song, too.”
“God, no! I love that song. I could never hate that song.”
Raf sighed and looked off in the distance, probably wondering if it was worth pursuing this conversation further. “Well,” he eventually said, “I guess it doesn’t matter — ”
“You must understand that, for me, loving that song isn’t about Christmas or even Mariah. It’s an act of rebellion.”
“ — what?”
I got comfortable on the couch. “Let me tell you a story.”
My late mom was really into Christmas music. The day after Thanksgiving, the relentless onslaught (or, if you were my mom, the fun) began. The annual rotation included:
- An album of a children’s choir singing ghostly a cappella versions of carols. The songs creeped me out, but I loved the album cover artwork, so I always asked my mom to play it. (Look, four-year-olds don’t always make sense.)
- A cassette of random holiday songs she got at an Exxon station for $2.99, which included Julie Andrews’ “Deck the Halls” and the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick.” Fun fact: Both songs make me feel carsick now, even if I’m nowhere near a car.
- The “Home Alone” soundtrack, which I have no complaints about. All yuletide banners, no yuletide skips.
In elementary school, I was a quiet hostage to the Christmas music situation. The songs seemed to make my mom happy, even though it was a bittersweet time of year for us, filled with complicated hurdles like dad visitation schedules, a grandmother I adored but who criticized my mom a lot, and the general sadness of limited time and even more limited funds in a single-parent family. I remember tantrums thrown (not by me) because of toys not received, and tears shed when my mom thought we couldn’t see.
But still, the Christmas music played on. And with every year, it felt more forced and fake. We made sugar cookies listening to saccharine songs.
When junior high hit, I started rebelling against the holiday hit parade. I couldn’t change the bittersweet seasonal mood, but I could change the soundtrack — at least temporarily, when my mom wasn’t looking. We almost got into a screaming match the year she focused on decorating the tree while I kept switching her Exxon Christmas tape with my NKOTB cassette.
Then, my senior year of high school, a song came out that — for me — redefined what Christmas music could be. To my 17-year-old ears, it was the opposite of saccharine and cloying. It didn’t make me feel sad about all I lacked or guilty about all I had. Yeah, it was about romantic love, which I perpetually longed for; but that year, I finally had a boyfriend (though he was living in another country).
That was the year “All I Want for Christmas Is You” became my jam.
In those days, dinosaurs roamed the earth and we had to buy CDs at the mall for $18.99 each. So even though I loved the song, I couldn’t afford to buy it. But in our Christmastime hang-out, my late father and I ended up at Musicland in La Plaza Mall, and I summed up the courage to ask him for the CD.
I didn’t spend a lot of time with my father after early childhood (that’s a topic for a different blog post…and decades of therapy); but in our interactions during my teenage years, he could come off as pretentious and cruel. He’d give me gifts like 1000-page sci-fi tomes by authors I’d never heard of when I’d asked for the Anne of Green Gables series. So I wasn’t surprised when he shamed me for asking for a pop CD. He scoffed at the Mariah album, belittling my musical taste and heading to the store’s jazz section saying he’d buy me some “real music” instead.
Then — in a move I can only attribute to a higher power — he suddenly walked out of the jazz section, grabbed the Mariah CD out of my hands, and bought it without a word.
I mumbled “thank you” multiple times, went home, and played the song endlessly until January. I watched it spin merrily in my chunky Discman, drowning out my mom’s Christmas music and family arguments as it brought me tidings of comfort and great joy.
Maybe it’s the pandemic, but when I heard Drew Gooden joke about how “All I Want for Christmas Is You” gets overplayed everywhere, I was surprised. I’ve seen it pop up on TV once in a while, but I haven’t done holiday shopping in malls for years, so I haven’t been subjugated to the retail world’s bland Xmas playlists the way other people have. Greetings from the rock I apparently live under.
When I wasn’t paying attention, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” turned from new to classic. Which makes complete sense. It still feels like a youthful rebellion to me, but why would it to people younger than me? 1994 was a long-ass time ago, and its new releases are classic rock now.
And — at least for the time being, while I can still avoid store playlists — I’m okay with that. When I do hear the song, it’s a delightful surprise. I think back to my shock when it closed out, of all things, the Harvard University Band’s 100th-anniversary party back in October 2019. I hadn’t expected the party to end with people in their 20s and 30s dancing to “All I Want for Christmas Is You” with the joy of a thousand holiday specials, but I loved it.
And this year, my first full year without my mom, I really need that joy. Last Christmas, her dementia and suffering were still haunting me; but this year, I miss who she was before she got sick, shitty Christmas playlists and all. More than ever before, I keep thinking, “Oh, I need to call Mom and see what we’re doing for Christmas” before it hits me that she’s gone.
I’ve considered moving heaven and earth to find that damn Exxon tape. But I hated it then, and nostalgia isn’t going to make me love it now. So instead, I blast my own Christmas playlist. Mom would’ve hated Weird Al’s “Christmas at Ground Zero” and Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” but I think she would’ve liked Johnny Cash’s “Silent Night” and Frank Sinatra’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” She definitely would’ve approved of the tunes from the Grinch and Charlie Brown specials.
So I hit play on my phone, and “All I Want for Christmas Is You” starts. And I start crying. I’m happy, yet tears pour out of my eyes. But not because I’m sad. I’m just overwhelmed by this new feeling. For the first time in a long time, I feel hope for the holidays again.
Copyright 2021, Sarah A. Ruiz & What the Kids Were Watching/Quail School Media. All rights reserved.