Home is Where Beds Are Made and Butter is Added to Toast

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I’ve never had a real Christmas tree. Like an actual tree, something that was once alive. As an avid fan of the more secular (and childish and materialistic) aspects of the “hap-happiest season of all”, this is a part of the experience I’ve always felt like I’m missing out on. I’ve always had the store-bought synthetic stuff.

I’m not complaining, though. The idea of cutting down a real tree and dragging it into a living room for decoration seems strange and foreign to me. This is because I spend Christmas in sub-tropical climates, either in the sweltering stickiness of the Buenos Aires summer (southern hemisphere and all) or the permanent heatwave of my hometown of Barranquilla. This year it was the latter, as I once again made the trek down to Barranquilla to spend the holidays with some of my nearest and dearest.

It always feels like a weird kind of time warp, stepping back into Barranquillan life. Life kind of slows down and speeds up simultaneously. Weather-wise, it’s still as swampy and dusty as it always was, but the December northern winds collide with the otherwise suffocating heat and make it into beautiful hangout weather. Most other times I’ve been in Quilla, I’ve been tempted to stay indoors in the comforting hum of air conditioning systems. This time, I just want to sit outside with a beer.

Each year I come back, I get the distinct feeling that there’s less folks around; like perhaps people from my generation, who graduated high school 7 years ago, are getting to the age where they’re starting actual lives elsewhere, making the transition into true adulthood and full-fledged independence, with families and business ventures and education grabbing hold of their attention. They’re less concerned with visiting their old haunts. They find less excuses to take that trip at the end of the year. So the visits become more scattered, and that yearly pilgrimage back home starts feeling like a chore.

Sometimes I think I should be feeling that way, too. I mean, I don’t even like Barranquilla. Buenos Aires is this majestic (messy, chaotic, disorganized) metropolis, bursting with art and culture and things to do and people to meet. It’s where I’ve built my life– where I’ve carved out my little place in the world, amidst all the radio static. Why would I want to be anywhere else? Why do I every year find myself back in this stagnant cesspool of a city?

But as I sit in this old room, on the morning of the day after Christmas, with wrapping paper still covering the floors under the tree downstairs… the answer seems obvious. These end-of-the-year trips to my hometown are a huge comfort because they take me right back to simpler times, reducing the world to a more manageable size. The projects and contacts and complications and networks and hassles that I have going on in Buenos Aires don’t exist here at all. In this house, I’m a kid again, free from the burden of adulthood. That’s a feeling that I’m happy to have once a year. A battery recharge, so to speak, to keep me from diving headfirst into the deepest pits of cynicism & despondency towards which my personality tends to gravitate. To keep me afloat. To prolong the magic.

And in the spirit of prolonging the magic, before the Christmas spirit washes away from us like a drunken stupor, here are a few original Christmas songs that my music library has called to my attention in the last few days. Perfect for listening to while eating leftover ham or sweeping torn wrapping paper off the floor.

Badly Drawn Boy- “Donna and Blitzen”

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A lovely little tune from the soundtrack album to the generally-underrated-but-actually-pretty-okay Hugh Grant vehicle “About a Boy”, this is a wonderful slice of Christmas cheer. A song about cautious optimism disguised as wide-eyed enthusiasm, with a lush and elegant string arrangement and a decidedly nostalgic sound. I love this little song to death, although, if you break it down, there’s really not a whole lot to it.

The Mynabirds- “All I Want is Truth (For Christmas)”

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Have to thank my friend Peter for this one. The Mynabirds are a band that have been on my radar for a while, but I’ve willfully ignored due to Peter’s over-the-top love for them. For some reason (some would call it hipster reflex) my natural instinct is to back away from whatever is on the receiving end of such vigorous gushing. Peter was right, though. The Mynabirds are a wonderful band that I’m slowly discovering, and one of the immediate standouts from the songs I’m sampling is this clever take-off of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, which morphs the familiar tune into a protest song of sorts.

Jason Gleason- “Sleigh Bells and Wine”

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Jason Gleason is a singer I’m completely unfamiliar with. A cursory Google search reveals that he’s the former lead vocalist of something called Further Seems Forever, a Christian (?) emo (?) rock band formerly fronted by Chris Carabba (of later Dashboard Confessional fame) that’s so far removed from my scope of interest that I had to read their Wikipedia article to make sure they weren’t a parody band. Chances are I would’ve lived my entire life happily unaware of this man’s existence were it not for a Christmas compilation album I was handed as a stocking-filler a few years ago featuring this little gem of a song. A twisty-turny blue ballad with a cool jazz backing (the vibraphone!), I’ve already spun this tune more times in the last week than I’d ever even heard of Gleason’s former band. Really good stuff.

Sufjan Stevens- “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever”

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Sufjan Stevens likes Christmas. Sufjan Stevens likes Christmas a lot. He likes Christmas so much that in the last decade he released exactly 100 Christmas songs, an assortment of originals and covers, across 10 EPs. As you can probably imagine, he knows Christmas music well, and thus knows what makes a good Christmas song work. He understands that the best ones are those that incorporate the playful, singy-songy holiday cheer as well as the mysterious,  folky English ballad minor-chord sound. In that regard, “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” is a resounding success, and one that deserves to become a holiday standard.

Okkervil River- “Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas”

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This beautiful piece of music pretty much captures everything I was talking about earlier. Trips back home and down memory lane, pacing around a house that’s no longer your house but feels like home more than anywhere else in the world. Because, for all your worldly aspirations and illusions of self-sufficiency, this is shelter from the torrential downpour of responsibilities and hazards out there. This is calm and protection, and though it comes with its own special kind of melancholy– the advent of old age, the unrealized aspirations, the memories you’d rather leave behind– this is safe. And as much as I go on about how much I hate this city, I can’t deny the power of what it represents. A refreshing respite from the tumultuous cacophony of the life I’ve chosen for myself.

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