My kids keep asking for an Elf on the Shelf, and I keep saying no.

If you’re not familiar, it’s a fairly recent Christmas gimmick. The idea is this: The elf, which looks vaguely like a character from 1964’s stop-motion camp-fest Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, is supposed to sit, untouched, on some surface in the house, watching and reporting to Santa.

I’m not the first to say this, of course, but the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon just plain normalizes surveillance—celebrates it, even. When I say no, it’s not just a monosyllabic denial; I say why. I don’t believe they should behave ethically because someone’s watching, but because it’s the right thing to do. I believe every person can be their own highest moral authority.

Yet the concept of good behavior leading to material reward threads through the Christmas paradigm like the garish patterns on an ugly sweater. And with this secularized Christian holiday looming large and overshadowing its winter holiday neighbors, the concept pervades our culture. But Christmas is so shiny and so fun, and the Santa Claus myth promises magic and mystery that my poor heathen children simply encounter so little of. I’m a progressive parent seeking a middle ground, which would allow my girls to get into the spirit of this holiday without them internalizing the passively Christian concept of an external moral authority.

Central to that mission is a good seasonal soundtrack, one that philosophically—and melodically —appeals to progressive parents with an ear for good music. It exists, y’all.

Look first to The Mavericks, the longstanding quirky country-tropical-rockabilly-swing-doo-wop hybrid led by crooner Raul Malo. The band’s new Hey! Merry Christmas! opens with bold boogie-woogie piano and exuberant beach music harmonies. The spirit is one of harmless fun. Santa comes up often enough, but he’s mostly portrayed as a fellow reveler. And while it closes on a chestnut, Hey! Merry Christmas! is mostly comprised of Mavericks’ originals.

“Santa Wants to Take You for a Ride” rides a sick, languorous groove and is punctuated by rude, raunchy horns, while “I Have Wanted you (for Christmas)” is classic Mavericks romantic weirdness. “I have wanted you for Christmas / ever since the world began / before there even was a Santa / and back before the dawn of man,” Malo sings over a yuletide-ized Tex-Mex amble.

It’s a solid record that just happens to be holiday-themed, as is Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ It’s a Holiday Soul Party. This 2015 album was one of Jones’s final releases, and it’s as much a testament to her powerful spirit, undeniable voice, and firecracker backing band as non-holiday records like I Learned the Hard Way. Beyond its insistent Motown revival grooves, however, is a legit holiday record, not a Christmas record. It opens on “Eight Days of Hanukkah,” for instance, and the record’s back cover casts Jones and the members of The Dap-Kings as the candles in a menorah.  Closing medley “God Rest Ye Merry Gents” showcases the Dap-Kings’ instrumental prowess. I keep telling my kids that the innuendo-heavy “Big Bulbs” is about ornaments (they’ll figure it out when they’re older).

A major standout on an already magnificent album is the incisive “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects.” “When I was a child I used to wonder/how Santa put my toys under the tree/I said ‘Mama, can you tell me how this can be?/when there ain’t no chimneys in the projects?’” Jones sings, setting up a true story of parents instilling hope and wonder in their children despite de facto segregation and systemic inequality.

Finally, Caspar Babypants’s Winter Party! is a children’s holiday record with substance—and a decided absence of consumerist language. Caspar Babypants is the stage and recording name of Chris Ballew, who rose to Top 40 prominence in the nineties as the vocalist of The Presidents of the United States of America. Unsatisfied with touring and other elements of being in a grown-up band, Ballew pivoted to kids’ music in the aughts and has released quality albums at a prodigious pace.

In conversation, Ballew exudes gentle, patient energy and regularly extols the virtues of meditation and ego management. He speaks directly to children, not at them, and is an undisputed master of both the pop hook and the absurd concept. “Pumpkin in the Pines,” for example, is about a spectral Halloween pumpkin that accidentally stuck around until the winter holiday season. One of the most notable elements of Winter Party! is that Ballew rewrote a number of Christmas songs, removing Christian references and rendering them fully secular. His “Silent Night” is a gorgeous and simple cowboy lullaby, in which he sings “Rest your head now, sweet little child/tiny infant so tender and mild.”

So does this resolve the philosophical discord between Christmas’s dicier elements and my own worldview? No, not by half—but at least it ensures my family will have an excellent soundtrack while we build our own version of the winter holiday.

One reply on “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas With a More Secular Soundtrack”

  1. Thank you for your insightful article and the inclusin of my record WINTER PARTY!
    I felt that I wanted to focus on the gathering together of people and warmth of the feeling of connection to others with this album rather than the religiou aspects of the holiday so I am super glad you liked it for the reaasons you did.
    This is my only album that is not 5 stars everwhere because some people are offended by my lyrical choices. I feel like there are SO many other options for the Christian versions that I am amazed that people can’t let me interpret this season in my own way.
    Thanks and happy holidaze!
    chris ballew (caspar babypants)

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