Jackie Gleason’s mind-bending ‘Merry Christmas’ is the perfect holiday record

Jackie Gleason the bandleader had a much weirder idea of Christmas than Ralph Kramden did.

Jackie Gleason the bandleader had a much weirder idea of Christmas than Ralph Kramden did. Promotional still

For almost 40 years now, from the day after Thanksgiving until New Year's Day, I have listened to nothing but Christmas music.

That is in no way an exaggeration, as anyone who has lived with me can attest. I listen to it at home, in the car, and when I'm walking with my dog. (I have an iPod Mini that is stocked with holiday songs.)

I know that many people find this devotion, along with my general Christmas obsession, insufferable. (That’s probably why I spend so much time alone during the holidays.) I will continue to insist, though, that Christmas has inspired a staggering amount of incredible and transcendent music—durable songs, mind-blowing arrangements and performances, albums that year after year continue to hold up to repeated listening.

There is so much beauty, joy, and exultation in the best Christmas records, but even as a child I was aware of the melancholy strain that ran through so many of the seasonal standards. The canon is almost evenly divided between happy, hopeful songs and songs of loneliness, longing, and disappointment. That makes for an intoxicating playlist for anyone with a manic-depressive streak and a sometimes crippling weakness for the sort of nostalgia that has a fierce dark undertow.

My collection is huge, with records from virtually every imaginable genre, and I continue to add to it every year. But the songs and albums I return to every December are almost all from my childhood. Those were the years—the sixties, mostly—when the pop culture spell of Christmas took a firm hold over a huge swath of white, middlebrow, middle-class America. In almost every sense that decade was the hothouse incubator of most of the post-war commodifications of the holiday. From 1964-1966, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas all made their network television debuts. Almost every night during the holiday season you could watch some often preposterous celebrity Christmas extravaganza; everyone from Judy Garland and Mitzi Gaynor to crooners like Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Andy Williams took a crack at hosting network holiday specials.

Album art

Album art

The one record from my childhood that permanently wormed its way into my consciousness was Jackie Gleason's Merry Christmas, which was originally released in 1959 and spent countless hours in the holiday rotation in our house. I have no memory of my life without that record, and I continue to listen to it at least once a day (generally late at night) during the holiday season. It’s the record I have listened to more than any other in my life—more than a thousand times, if my calculations are correct. Nothing else is even close. It's the record I want to hear when I'm dying. Many times as I listened to it I have felt as if I was dying.

Gleason, as many perhaps do not know, had a long sideline as an arranger and conductor of lush and almost lysergic mood music, and the mood he seemed to be after, particularly in his Christmas records, was the most complicated, ambiguous, and emotionally fraught of all. I'm not kidding, on a bad and lonely December night this record can almost kill you, or at least convince you that you've died and been decapitated, and your head is in a vat in some cryogenic chamber in an industrial park somewhere. Other, better nights, it can make a walk around your dingy neighborhood with your dog feel like a narcotic out-of-body experience in some small and impossibly romantic European village. It's really the purest and most powerful distillation of every mixed-up, messed-up pathology in the special Christmas version of the DSM, and I honestly don't know of any other record like it.

Much of the time (and to most people) Gleason's Merry Christmas sounds like the rawest sort of absurdist art damage. It out-emos any emo I've ever heard, and I believe it to be the first and slowest entry in the slowcore catalog. All the musicians involved in the recording—and they are each exquisite and uncredited—sound like they’re nodding off, and Gleason deconstructs holiday standards until they’re virtually unrecognizable. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”—surely one of the most harrowing and Freudian of songs in any genre—is given the dark and wrenching treatment it deserves, and even “Jingle Bells” is reduced to a plodding, blindfolded death march through a frozen and desolate landscape. I defy anyone to try to carol along with this record.

The cover is chilling as well: There’s a picture of a rural mailbox, its red flag up, stuffed with brightly wrapped packages, beyond which is a completely dark house buried in snow, and if you look closely enough you can just make out a single set of footprints where someone has clearly staggered through the drifts, most likely (I generally surmise) to put out one last batch of fuck-you gifts for some ex-wife or estranged relative before retreating to the darkness of the house to drink himself to death.

Sometimes, though, I look at that cover and think it's the coziest Christmas idyll I could possibly imagine, and sometimes that version of “Jingle Bells” feels the way it felt to be a child drifting off to sleep on Christmas Eve. The whole record's like that. It's John Ruskin's pathetic fallacy translated to music, or a constantly shifting Rorschach whose interpretation is entirely dependent on where your holiday head is on any given night.

A doctor's prescription should probably be required before you listen to it, but it's nonetheless the perfect Christmas record. Seriously, it's the best ever. But I also realize that most people would likely hate it. In which case, I'd recommend one of the following all-time favorites, some of which are less potent analgesics, others merely mild barbiturates, and still others on the amphetamine side of the pharmaceutical spectrum.

  • Phil Spector, A Christmas Gift
  • Soul Christmas (the original Atlantic version)
  • Boston Pops, Pops Christmas Party
  • Jimmy Smith, Christmas '64
  • Kenny Burrell, Have Yourself a Soulful Christmas
  • Booker T. and the MG's, In the Holiday Spirit
  • Robert Shaw Chorale, Christmas Carols and Hymns
  • Jo Stafford, Happy Holiday
  • Where Will You Be Christmas Day (Dust-to-Digital)
  • Bootsy Collins, Christmas is 4Ever
  • Nick Lowe, Quality Street
  • Percy Faith, The Music of Christmas
  • Bobby Timmons, Holiday Soul
  • Ella Fitzgerald, A Swingin' Christmas
  • Christmas With Buck Owens and His Buckaroos
  • The Three Suns, A Ding Dong Dandy Christmas