I grew up very close to most of my extended family, and music was an omnipresent factor of our upbringing. There was a point when four of my cousins and I were all in the same high school marching band. One of them was the drum major and the rest of us each played a different instrument. I have no idea why we never formed a band.
I also come from a family with many, many traditions. My cousins and I made some of them up, and those ones usually made no sense. As kids on Thanksgiving we would pretend to be turkeys and parade around our grandparents’ house chanting, “Protest! Protest! Just because that we are edible doesn’t mean that you can eat us!” right before eating a Thanksgiving turkey. But unlike the Turkey Protest, some of these traditions are holiday staples that predate us. “The Friendly Beasts” is one of those traditions.
On Christmas Eve, my extended family sits in a circle in my grandparents’ living room and sings “The Friendly Beasts” with paper bag puppets of each of the animals in the song. My grandmother or my sister will play the piano, and your animal puppet determines the verse you sing. Everyone sings the first and last verses. Everyone, except my dad.
I like to give credit to my family and my musical upbringing as a big reason why I have chosen to pursue music as an academic and career path, but almost none of that credit is allowed to go to my dad. He is the least musical person I have ever met in my life. When we sing “The Friendly Beasts” my dad usually goes for the donkey (I assume because, you know, ass) and sometimes, instead of singing, he rolls his eyes, takes a deep breath, and belts a loud “HEEHAW,” or maybe some other sound that may or may not sound like a donkey-pterodactyl hybrid animal. This family sing-along often deteriorates into uncontrollable laughter at one point or another.
It might sound like my dad hates the tradition, but that’s not true. He loves it. He might not admit it, but I know he does. He was estranged to his family for my entire childhood. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that he finally met up with his dad for the first time in 25 years, but he died a few months after that. My dad cherishes these traditions because it’s one thing that keeps our family together.
I used to think that “The Friendly Beasts” was a well known Christmas tune, but about two years ago, while my friends and I were recording our own Christmas album, one of them asked, “What’s your favorite Christmas song?” Of course, I said “The Friendly Beasts,” but nobody in the room had ever heard of it. It seemed weird to me, but even now I’m finding out that some people think it’s a Sufjan original.
It was soon after that I realize that my connection with this song goes beyond, “It’s my favorite Christmas song.” This song is very special to me. It encompasses everything that I love about my family, our ridiculous traditions, and everything I’ve loved so much about growing up so close to my cousins.
There is no rendition of this song that captures all of this better than the Sufjan Stevens recording on Songs For Christmas. The warm and inviting orchestration, the trading off of lead vocals by verse, the sheer number of vocal parts and harmonizations, and the “Let’s gather ‘round and sing a song!” spirit of the recording all evoke the memories I have of sitting in a circle in my grandparents’ living room with our paper bag puppets and my dad’s animalistic outbursts.
This year is the first time that I will not be home for Christmas. My sister had a child, so I’m going to Utah to celebrate Christmas with them. I’ll be missing out on one of my favorite traditions, but at least I have Sufjan Stevens’ recording of “The Friendly Beasts” to remind me of home.
Hunter Prueger is a composer and musician based in Austin, Texas where he is pursuing a master’s degree in music composition from the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite primarily being a classical musician, he would describe himself as an avid music fan of almost all kinds throughout the entire history of music. His music has been described as “exceptionally clever and original”, and you can listen to some of it here:
And you can listen to the aforementioned Christmas album here (warning: it’s not good, but we had fun making it)