Curious to hear the tunes for yourself? Here are some convenient embeds to Sufjan’s large body of Christmas work along with brief write-ups on each courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty.
Songs for Christmas
Forget the 50 States. Christmas is a bigger concept. As some of you may or may not know, for the past few years, as a holiday tradition, Sufjan has embarked on an extraordinary experiment to record an annual Christmas EP. It started in 2001, the year of Epiphanies, and continued onward (skipping only 2004), culminating into an odd and idiosyncratic catalog of music that has only existed in the Asthmatic Kitty archives (and on a number of file sharing sites). The recording process took place every December, for one week, usually at home, provoking collaborations with friends, roommates, and musical peers. Armed with a Reader’s Digest Christmas Songbook (and a mug of hot cider) Sufjan & friends concocted a musical fruit cake year after year, implementing every musical instrument they could find lying around the house: banjo, oboe, Casiotone, wood flute, a buzzy guitar, hand claps, sleigh bells, Hammond organ, and some tree tinsel. Did we mention sleigh bells? It doesn’t take much to capture that Creepy Christmas Feeling, does it? Recorded, mixed and mastered at home, the EPs themselves were often assembled in the kitchen, stapled together, and sent out with stickers and stamps to loved ones across the globe, year after year, with little Christmas cards that read: “Merry Christmas. You are something special. Santa Claus loves you. And so do I.” And then, one day, some of these songs showed up online. Curious little web zines and fan sites posted mp3s. People started asking questions. What is this I hear about Sufjan doing the boogey to the elf dance? Where can I get these Christmas goodies? Well, not wanting to be the Grinch, we decided to deck the halls, if you know what I mean.
But let’s back up a bit. Having an inherent aversion to the standard Christmas carol, Sufjan indulged in the project initially as an exercise to make himself “appreciate” Christmas more. It was a tough childhood, but you can’t be a Christmas Curmudgeon forever, can you? What he discovered, for better or for worse, was a fascinating canon of Yuletide hits, some emotionally rewarding, some painfully cliché. Jingle Bells. Silent Night. We Three Kings. The whole nine yards. The musical undertaking led Sufjan (and his coterie of friends) to reckon with a holiday that celebrates, above all things, the spirit of excess--Santa Claus, popcorn balls, mistletoe, and Kmart blue light specials, to name a few. What does it all add up to? A headache, a hangover, and sentimental ruminations of Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and all those animals in the manger. Is there any other holiday that so seamlessly mixes the sacred and the profane?
Recording traditional favorites alongside unique originals, Sufjan has, over the course of five years, constructed an odd, impressive, and compelling collection of Christmas hits (and some misses) that will either warm your heart or make you throw up eggnog all over the bath mat (depending on your constitution). Asthmatic Kitty Records is preparing to release ALL of the material (newly mixed and mastered) in one generous box set, due in stores November 21, just in time for the holiday shopping craze.
Silver & Gold
Christmas is a drag. Year after year, winter upon winter, we find ourselves “going through the motions of merriment,” possessed by a fervent celestial fever, conquered, squandered, beaten, broken, reduced to that clammy, pre-pubescent spoiled brat kid of our childhood, throwing a fit on Santa’s lap, faced with the hard-candy facts of reality, knowing for certain we will never really get what want for Christmas.
Or in life, for that matter.
This is the true horror-show catharsis of Christmas: the existential emptiness that perseveres in the heart of modern man as he recklessly pursues his search for happiness and comes up empty handed.
And yet, against all odds, we continue to sing our songs of Christmas. If Christmas is the holiday of “worst case scenarios” then its carol has become its most corrupted currency, intoning rhapsody and romance with mistletoe and Marshmallow Fluff, placating the public with indelible melodies propagating a message of peace, love, and venture capitalism.
So what is it about Christmas music that continues to agitate our aging heartstrings? Is it the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen? Or the boundless Potential Energy inherent in this bastard holiday so fitfully exploited, adapted, and confounded with no regard for decency?
Maybe this: Christmas music does justice to a criminal world, marrying sacred and profane, bellowing obtuse prophecies of a Messiah in the very same blustery breath as a candy-coated TV-jingle advertising a string of lights and a slice of fruitcake. Gloria!
Who can save us from the infidels of Christmas commodity? Look no further, tired shopper, for your hero arrives as the diligent songwriter Sufjan Stevens: army of one, banjo in one hand, drum machine in the other, holed up in his room, surrounded by hymnals, oratorios, music charts, sacred harp books, photo-copied Readers Digest Christmas catalogs—all the weaponry of Yuletide incantations—singing his barbaric yawp above the snow-capped rooftops.
His song is love; his song is hope; his song is peace. His song conjures the fruitcake world of his own imagination with steadfast pursuit of the inexplicable bliss of Christmas Promises—“Gloria in excelsis deo”—summoning the company of angels, the helper elves, the shepherds keeping flock, the innkeepers, the coupon-clippers, the marathon runners, the cross-country skiers, the bottom feeders, the grocery store baggers, the bridge and tunnel drivers, the construction workers, the ice cream makers, the toll booth workers, the street sweepers, the single mothers, the custodians, the rich and the poor, the walking dead, the community of saints, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, the Prince of Persia, and all the invisible hosts of heaven to participate in this absurd cosmic adventure, pursuing holly-jolly songs of hope and redemption with a sacred heart for the love of the holidays, for the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Lonely Man of Winter
In 2007, Sufjan Stevens wrote and recorded “Lonely Man of Winter” and, as part of a holiday marketing contest to promote Stevens’ Songs for Christmas boxset, traded ownership of the song to the winner, Alec Duffy. In turn Duffy gifted his song, “Every Day is Christmas,” to Stevens.
But instead of widely releasing “Lonely Man of Winter,” Duffy held listening sessions in his home and around the world, sometimes pairing the private listenings with cookies and hot chocolate.
In an end to that years-long project, Duffy – now founder/Artistic Director of the non-profit Brooklyn performance venue JACK – has decided to release the song “Lonely Man of Winter” on Asthmatic Kitty Records, digitally and on limited edition 7 inch, with funds going to support JACK’s mission of fueling experiments in art and activism.
In addition to the song by Duffy, the release includes Sufjan’s own newer version of “Lonely Man in Winter” recorded in 2018. This new version is produced by Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) and features a performance by Melissa Mary Ahern.