As much as I adore the crunchy leaves of fall and the warm weather of summer, this is easily my favorite time of the year. Not only does winter represent a reprieve from work and the knowledge of imminent snowfall, but it’s symbolic of a million little traditions that accompany the season.
Sure, there are “big” events like opening presents on Christmas, but it’s also special because it’s the only time of year when everything changes. The street lamps get wrapped in Christmas lights, the packaging on products gain red and green embellishments, everyone seems to adopt a different demeanor. Everything from car advertisements to storefront windows become snow-coated jingle-bell-adored mutations of their prior selves. The world seems to become a less harsh place. As much as I love these tactile Cinnamon-scented adoptions, music is the one seasonal change I look forward to the most.
I’m the guy that breaks out the holiday music the second the clock strikes midnight on October 31st. I’ve got dozens of holiday-themed playlists, hundreds of Christmas albums, and (much to the chagrin of those around me) I’m not afraid to enjoy them for two months straight.
I’m also a deeply nostalgic person. During the summer I listen to last year’s radio hits. In the autumn I revisit albums from fall terms now long gone. During the holidays, I break out multiple playlists of nostalgia-fueled tunes. From metal to Christmas classics, this season seems to cater to my personal brand of hyper-obsessive revisitation if only because the world itself is doing the same thing. Thanksgiving doesn’t have carols. Easter doesn’t have an anthem. Nobody has an Independence day album. Society has self-inflicted holiday nostalgia, and we’re all along for the ride whether we like it or not.
The same way that a certain smell can evoke some long-buried memory, Christmas music is inextricably tied to events, feelings, and people of Christmases past. That time in elementary school when all I wanted was a copy of the board game Battleship. That time when I was stringing up Christmas lights with my dad and two brothers singing along to The Barenaked Ladies’ dumb jokey version of “Jingle Bells.” Making cookies with my mom after a day full of video games, podcasts, and warm sweaters. These heartwarming memories get fainter and fainter each day, but the right song can send the feeling rushing back in the most goosebump-inducing way possible. Music is the closest we’ll ever get to bottling up nostalgia, and there’s music made specifically for this month, so why not embrace it?
I’ve written about my deep connection to Sufjan’s music before. While albums like Carrie & Lowell and Age of Adz are objectively-great artistic achievements, I reserve my favorite albums of his for these final two months of the year. Both Michigan and Illinois are records that I’ll only spin from October 31st onward. Plus the man has over 100 Christmas songs to his name, so my November and December are basically inundated with Sufjan Stevens.
While I adore almost every song on both of his massive holiday-themed releases, one of the more obscure deep cuts that lies close to my heart is “We're Goin’ To The Country!”
The song itself is a warm, familial folk track and about as barebones as Sufjan’s Christmas work ever gets. Clocking in at two minutes seventeen seconds, the song contains less than 100 words and is both pointed and direct while also taking as much time as it needs to deliver its message. Centering around a plucky banjo and gentle acoustic guitar, “We’re Goin’ To the Country!” is a mid-tempo country-tinged jaunt with lyrics of fitted sheets and mistletoes. This track is also notable for being one of the few songs across Sufjan’s 100 Christmas songs to not feature the man himself on vocals. Helmed by Matt Morgan, “We’re Goin’ To the Country!” weaves a vague story of traveling to the country as a family and picking out a Christmas tree.
It’s a simple song revolving around a simple event, but despite the surface-level retelling of such a mundane happening, the track manages to depict the love and care that goes into these types of traditions. The chorus is held down by carefully-wielded sleigh bells that meld beautifully with the established banjo/guitar melody to perfectly evoke that sense of wintery wonder that comes with this yearly expedition.
When I mentioned my multiple holiday-themed playlists earlier, the reason there are so many of them is because they are specific. The holidays are about tradition, and I’ve got my own self-enforced traditions that are just for me and no one else. A single song that I’ll listen to while my family and I are on the way to a yearly dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. An album that I’ll listen to while playing through a specific level of a video game. A compilation of songs that I listen to during the first snowfall of the year. They get pretty specific.
One of these hyper-specific holiday collections is a playlist of about a dozen songs that I listen to while my family is on our way to pick up our Christmas tree. One of the reasons Portland Oregon is such a wonderful place to live is its adjacency to everything. 90 minutes to the ocean. Two hours to the mountain. And (in my case) about 10-minutes away from full-on farmland.
While I’ll admit it seems terribly-uninspired and on-the-nose to listen to a song about going to the country while going to the country, I feel like that sort of cheese is exactly what the holiday is about.
The song evokes warm early-morning car rides with my family packed into the van, ready to passionately debate over which tree is the best. Ready to get covered in pitch. Thirsty for the complimentary hot cocoa on the ride home. Preparing for the coming afternoon of decorating, revising all of our favorite Christmas tree ornaments and reminding each other of the story behind each decoration.
“We’re Goin’ To the Country!” is a perfect encapsulation of Christmas. An unsuspecting and simple thing that grows into a tradition you care about more than words can explain. A universal experience that’s been changed, morphed, and customized with thousands of miniature traditions all built on top of one another. A unique expression of love that only comes once a year. An ever-changing feeling that possesses the power to bring your family closer together. The song has become one of the many, many things that warm my heart and fill me with joy around the Christmas season. A tradition all its own, and a reason to look forward to the winter, and it's only two minutes long.
Taylor Grimes is a Portland-based writer, pop-culture geek, and co-creator of this very website. When he’s not baptizing himself in Christmas-based nostalgia you can usually find him writing about new music on his blog over at Swim Into The Sound. You can also catch him on Twitter @GeorgeTaylorG where is the purveyor of all hot takes, bad memes, and esoteric photoshops.