A Note Of Explanation
by Sufjan Stevens
In December of 2001 (the Year of Epiphanies), I decided to record a collection of Christmas songs at home in Brooklyn, as a kind of musical benediction to a tumultuous year. It would be something to give as gifts for my family and friends, something with which to appease the apprehension of everyday life, which had been uprooted by all the extraordinary events in the world.
What did the angels renounce in the wake of the shepherds' trepidation? "Have no fear," they petitioned with trumpet blasts and a garish display of constellations. But that's like waving a gun in a bank lobby and demanding: "Everybody stay calm!" Music, of course, works much differently. The most discriminating of chord progressions can disarm the most arrogant of men, including myself. Christmas music does this to the highest degree. It intersects a supernatural phenomenon (the incarnation of God) with the sentimental mush of our mortal lives (presents, toys, Christmas tree ornaments, snow globes, cranberry sauce), leaving in its pathological wake a particular state of mind one can only describe as "that warm, fuzzy feeling." Was this what I was after? The search for existential significance in all that sentimental oatmeal? Perhaps, but I'm not so certain "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells" can be used as an exegesis for the big questions in life.
Or can they? I decided to find out, continuing the tradition year after year, plummeting into the abysmal canon of Yuletide carols, strumming the banjo, shaking the bells, tipping my Santa hat to Saint Nick, all the while assembling a ramshackle mix tape of Christmas "hits" (sometimes adding my own originals), wondering "What does it really mean to deck the halls with boughs of holly?" These short collections ("Songs for Christmas" EPs, I called them) were assembled at home, transferred to CD-R, sent out with stickers and stamps to family, friends and loved ones, year after year. I had a few accomplices whom I invited as transient collaborators: a college friend, a Presbyterian pastor and his wife, a string quartet, my little brother, to name a few. Whomever was around, I put them in front of a microphone and demanded: "Deck the halls with boughs of holly!" It's amazing what you can do with an 8-track and some mistletoe. I have great admiration for the people who participated in these musical exercises, sometimes against their better judgment. Perhaps they were just humoring me. At the very least, I discovered that sleigh bells are, in fact, difficult to play well (there is a technique to these kinds of things), and that Christmas music poses a cosmological conundrum in requiring us to sing so sweetly and sentimentally about something so terrifying and tragic. In the end, I had assembled five complete EPs in six years, skipping only one year, 2004, when I was anguishing over another album called "Illinois."
Which brings me to this elaborate box set. When I finally decided to "officially" release all this music (for better or for worse), I was determined to present each EP in its original form. A compilation would have been a cumbersome compromise. A "Greatest Hits" would have been heartbreaking. (How to choose?) It just seemed best to preserve the spirit of each individual EP—mistakes and all—as a document to the times. But I also wanted to augment the music with a lavish display of ornamentation—it just wouldn't be Christmas without all the festive frills and flourishes. Which might help explain the technicolor packaging, the chord charts, the animated video, the photographs, the comic strip, the family portrait, the essays, the short story, the Christmas stickers, all the incredible cornucopia of junk that has come to represent Christmas more than anything else. This is what it means to deck the halls, after all! This is my gift to you. Enjoy—and have a Happy Christmas!