The Joys of Regional Christmas Music
Catch the spirit of the season in a new way with holiday tunes about donkeys, crabs, and standing under the Zilker tree.
WHEN IT COMES TO CHRISTMASTIME, everybody knows two things: a turkey and some mistletoe help to keep the season bright, and “Christmas music” means the same twenty or so mostly midcentury tunes played over and over and over again. But the broadly palatable and somewhat placeless-feeling national canon of holiday music can obscure another, less familiar catalogue of seasonal numbers that are unlikely to make it into Walmart’s national in-store December playlist. I’m talking about regionally specific Christmas songs—the ones that come from, and are still mostly played in, a single state or region.
To be sure, even the most famous holiday tunes often have a lot of quirky particularity that their very popularity obscures. After millions of plays on the radio, they become blanks on which we can inscribe our own associations. Or we—or at least I—can attempt to imaginatively recreate the songs’ original context, even down to reconstructing the homes and neighborhoods in which they take place. One can picture a largely pre-suburban America (the kids chased Frosty around an old-fashioned village square) alongside an affluent suburban one (the boy who catches mommy kissing Santa Claus was very lucky to live in a two-story home in the 1950s). But maybe that’s taking it a bit far.
These sorts of imaginative reaches aren’t necessary with regional Christmas songs, which are best appreciated alongside little riffs on their unique histories. Here are a few to help you freshen up your holiday spirit.
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There was a big novelty song craze in the 1950s and ’60s. Think Allan Sherman, Tom Lehrer, Alvin and the Chipmunks, all those sound-effect records. And Lou Monte, an Italian-American singer of Italian-American novelty songs who sang things like this.
The only Lou Monte song you’re likely to hear today is 1960’s “Dominick the Donkey,” and then, you’ll likely only hear it in the Northeast, especially around Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York City, where Monte was from. (Occasionally, it will play down here near D.C. I usually hear it once or twice during the many hours I leave FM 97.1 on during Christmastime.)
A Reddit user from the New York area relates that “one year it was literally played looped on the radio for an hour straight.” In the same thread, another writes, “I learned it from an Italian-American friend in the Marine Corps, [whose] name was Dominic, and his family always teased him with it.” In the second verse, Dominick delivers some clothes made in “Brook-a-leen,” but a version of the song performed for a Philadelphia fundraiser altered the lyrics to “South Philly,” that city’s historically Italian area. Lots of local stories note its enduring popularity with Italian Americans. Here’s a funny, heartwarming essay about the song by a fellow Calabrian—that’s where Monte’s family hailed from.
While the song is unquestionably corny—“Brook-a-leen,” “when Santa visits his paisans,” and that particularly undignified utterance, “chingedy-ching”—it’s still beloved; it gave Italian-American kids a little piece of the culture that was their own. “This was played every Christmas on my Sicilian grandparent’s record player,” one YouTube comment reads. “We’d put it on and all dance around like idiots after Christmas Eve dinner. Such nice memories.”
“We’ll hop in my sleigh / And we’ll fly to New England where I’ll get you scrod.”
I’ve been listening to Christmastime radio in the Chesapeake region for eight years now, and I’ve only ever heard this song once. But your chance of hearing it elsewhere is even slimmer. “Crabs for Christmas” is as quintessentially Maryland as Dominick is Tri-State:
Back in 1981, [David] DeBoy managed to get his novelty song on local radio, and was shocked when the single sold more than 10,000 copies that year.
"When the song was first released, I was performing it at events all by myself," he writes in an email. But the popularity of "Crabs for Christmas" led to other Baltimore-themed Christmas songs, then to albums and finally to a live show he performs with his backup singers, The Hons.
“If you’re listening to local Baltimore radio,” wrote a Baltimore Banner columnist last year, “the holly-covered auditory onslaught might be sprinkled with a three and a half minute bushel of homegrown Noel nostalgia.” Unlike Dominick, whose fame extends beyond his birthplace, “Crabs for Christmas,” about a homesick Baltimorean wishing to a Texas mall Santa for a taste of home, doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. It’s a true piece of Christmas-music localism.
This one, from 1982, was written in twenty minutes by frequent D.C. radio guest (and now realtor) Maura Sullivan and host Jim London in response to a prompt from a listener; Sullivan performed it on air for WMZQ-FM. According to a Washingtonian article, “The song is a mainstay of local radio stations playing Christmas music, but outside those airwaves, Sullivan’s song is most likely found these days on internet lists of the worst holiday songs.”
It’s a bit sentimental and kitschy: “The Tidal Basin lies quiet / The tourists have found their way home / Mr. Jefferson’s standing the midwatch / And there’s a star on the Capitol Dome.” It also refers to Washington, D.C. as “America’s hometown,” which sounds more like a D.C. tourism campaign slogan than anything a real person, Washingtonian or not, would say. But that’s okay. If there’s a time for tasting the sweetness in something you’d usually find cloying, the Christmas season is it.
“When the BC Clark Jingle first aired in 1956, no one could have predicted that it would become the Oklahoma tradition it is today,” reads the YouTube description for this Oklahoma City jewelry store’s long-running jingle. “Intended to promote BC Clark Jewelers’ annual Anniversary Sale, the Jingle has evolved over time into Oklahoma’s very own Christmas carol and an icon with a life of its own.”
Though there are a couple of qualifiers, this is a neat little bit of trivia: “It is very possible that the BC Clark Jingle may be the longest continuously running jingle in the United States.”
“Christmas in Hollis” was released in 1987 by legendary Queens-based hip-hop group Run-DMC. It’s full of playful lines like “The rhymes that you hear are the rhymes of Darryl’s / But each and every year we bust Christmas carols,” and “I picked the wallet up, and then I took a pause / Took out the license and it cold said ‘Santa Claus.’” Here’s a nice article about it.
“Christmas in the Northwest,” released in 1985 by Brenda Kutz-White, is another paean to Christmas in a specific place—in this case, one where snow isn’t necessarily likely. “Take away the presents / And they still will have a dream / For Christmas in the Northwest / Is a gift God wrapped in green.”
Christmas in Austin? You know the drill at this point: “It’s finally cool enough to wear a sweater,” croons Texas singer Shelley King. “There’s no place on earth I’d rather be than standing under the Zilker tree.” (That’s this.)
IT MIGHT BE TEMPTING TO DISMISS these as mere novelty songs, worth hearing once and then forgetting. But consider that some classic Christmas songs could have also remained local obscurities if not for some fluke of history.
Consider Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” While this famous song feels like it came from the northern part of the country, Berlin tied it closely to California through the oft-omitted introductory verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, The orange and palm trees sway. There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A. But it’s December the twenty-fourth,— And I am longing to be up north.”
Berlin may not originally have written the song as a sentimental ballad, either: Citing a book on the origins of “White Christmas,” one writer argues the song was intended as “a satire on Hollywood types lolling around a pool, pretending to a nostalgia they didn’t really feel.” But this context has all fallen away, and millions listen to “White Christmas” each year while earnestly hoping for a snowy holiday.
Another historical curiosity is “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” It was not, as an apocryphal story goes, written as a fundraiser for the Oklahoma City Zoo to acquire a hippo—though the zoo did acquire a hippo because of the song. In response to the 1953 song’s unexpected popularity, the zoo launched a tie-in fundraiser to “buy” a hippo for the song’s singer, Gayla Peevey, who would then “donate” it to the zoo. (Although this donation was arranged ahead of time, Peevey apparently did not initially understand that the crowdfunded hippo was not going to be hers.) The Three Stooges—yes, those Three Stooges—recorded a version of the song in 1959, for a Christmas album.
Finally, there’s “Silver Bells,” which is about Christmas shopping in a big city, generally understood to be New York City (though it may have been inspired by a bell on an office desk). Come to think of it, almost all of the “wintry” Christmas songs could have ended up being regional—how much nostalgia can a native Floridian feel for cold winters? But, perhaps owing to New England’s role in shaping the American imagination, the coldest, snowiest version of Christmas is the one that became mainstream and nationalized. The internet tells me that even in Australia, all the winter-themed songs play. For whatever reason, nobody seems to have figured out how to create a popular, lasting set of warm-weather Christmas imagery. There isn’t any substantial body of work about Christmas in warm or summery weather—Christ’s birth taking place in a desert climate notwithstanding.
Does “Mele Kalikimaka,” which sounds like it’s supposed to be playing in a tiki bar or a chop suey restaurant from 1950, count? Maybe. But it’s not very . . . Christmasy, really. But then, neither are crabs or Italian donkeys. Merry Christmas!