2. “Merry Christmas Baby,” Otis Redding

Today my ears were treated to my favourite Christmas song of all time. Forget “Joy to the World” (well, don’t forget it exactly, it’s a classic in its own right, but I’m about to make a point here), this song is pure joy. There’s never been a singer like Otis Redding, nobody quite the same before or since. Which is a little bit trite to say. But Otis is just Otis.

I love Booker T’s organ, that sort of rotating, revolving Steve Cropper guitar riff through the verse. The starts and stops in the pre-chorus: “Santa came down the chimney!” STOP. “Half past three!” The horns. It just drools with awesome.

The album this comes from, The Original Soul Christmas, was my first Christmas album. It started a tradition that lasted for at least a dozen years, where I’d buy a new Christmas CD every December. It was probably somewhere around December 1993 or ‘94. I was still in university. As I’d always do, I brought it home and immediately recorded it to cassette so I could listen to it on my Walkman. Which, of course, I did repeatedly. To this day, there are very few places I go where I don’t have something playing in my ears. Which is, of course, the whole concept of this blog. But my strongest memory of listening to this song was on the subway, headed downtown to do some Christmas shopping. It reminds me of the city, of a wintry, nighttime Toronto, bright with snow. Reminds me of when I loved Christmas.

I still love Christmas, don’t get me wrong, but we have a more complicated relationship these days. Christmas back then was easy. I didn’t have a lot of money, of course, being a student, but I really only had three or four people to buy for and I loved the challenge of finding real presents that perfectly fit the people that mattered most to me. I was really hard on myself, trying to find that perfect gift. But that made it all the more fulfilling when I found it.

These days Christmas is hard. I love watching my boys enjoy it. But being an adult, being a parent, with the ludicrous expenses of being an adult and a parent, is hard. Things are especially tough this year. Which makes Christmas all the more difficult.

I used to start listening to my Christmas music on December 1 every year. Not a day before or a day after. This year it was December 20. It seems to get later every year as Christmas gets a little tougher. But there’s something I have to remember. Music heals.

Next year I have to remember to funnel the Christmas tunes into my earholes on December 1 again, no matter how I feel. Because songs like this help. They help bring that Christmas spirit back. Of course, they take me back to a simpler time, make me wistful. But here, in this song, those horns lift me up. Otis’ joy lifts me up. He says exactly what I need to hear in that ecstatic, surely improvised outro. It just bursts out of him: “Everything here is beautiful.” It reminds me: I’ve got what I need in my life. Everything here is beautiful.

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