Growing up, my family didn’t play Christmas music. I wonder if my generation is one of the first in the US to largely avoid the old-school Christmas music delivery methods, our parents less likely to take us to church and to pageants. It was hard enough to get into Christmas music when it was usually warm enough in Texas to barbecue on Christmas, but it was made impossible by the grating ways Christmas music entered my life.
Most of my exposure to Christmas music has been through commercial mediums. Television ads, radio spots, and tinny grocery store intercoms. Sleigh bells, breathy choirs, and religious imagery transplanted into the background of car commercials. Christmas music in my life has felt attached less to Christmas ideals of generosity and community and more to the capitalist ideal of consumerism.
And so Sufjan’s “Justice Delivers Its Death” stands out to me as an essential Christmas song for its honest, if grim, portrayal of the hypocrisies of Christmas in America right now. It’s a decidedly anti-commercial Christmas song, one that is pointedly absent of any joy or cheer. It instead offers regret and shame and is liable to offend the sensibilities of a listener expecting something with a bit more jingle.
“Justice Delivers Its Death” is a version of an old Christmas standard, “Silver and Gold,” only it’s run through a Sufjan strainer, styled with the apocalyptic mournfulness of “The Seer’s Tower” and the more localized mournfulness of Carrie and Lowell. The original was penned by Johnny Marks, who wrote a number of songs you may have assumed just faded into existence (like “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”). The original premise that “Silver and gold mean so much more / When I see silver and gold decorations on ev'ry Christmas tree” is familiar and tame.
Sufjan takes the material and rides it off a cliff as he decries the shortsightedness of materialism. The gentle warmth of Burl Ives’ voice in the original is replaced with the solemnity and condemnation of Sufjan’s.
“Lord, come with fire / Everyone’s wasting their time / Storing up treasure in vain / Trusting the pleasure it gives here on Earth,” is an incendiary set of bars in any context. They feel particularly resonant as the richest country in the world rolls into a plasticky Christmas season while its military leers through rifle sights at hopeful migrants at the border and its leaders relentlessly beat its poorer citizens over the head with a bat.
The song works on a number of levels - the message is cutting, the musicality is beautiful, and the lyricism ensures that it will never be covered by Josh Groban on a Starbucks Christmas cover album. But it fails in that it is so jarring that I can’t say there’s ever a good time to listen to it.
Don’t play it at the office Christmas party, don’t play it at home with your family, and don’t play it if you’re feeling cynical about the state of the world, which is to say never play it in 2018 or the foreseeable future. It’s too hopeless, and there are plenty of other times in the year to be hopeless!
But if Christmas music designed to comfort has been co-opted by product-pitching corporations, I can rest easy knowing this is the rare Christmas song that is untouchable. It’s a Christmas song that I’ll never hear on a car commercial or in a Target because it dares to do something that Christmas songs often don’t - make us feel uncomfortable. The status quo in 2018 sucks ass, and it feels appropriate to have a Christmas song that asks more of us, not another that tells us all is well as is.
“Lord, come with fire / Everyone’s wasting their time / Storing up treasure in vain / Trusting the pleasure it gives here on Earth,” is too real for me right now, but for our moment, it might be the only Christmas song that’s real at all.