Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash Vol. XLIII: Christmas in Haiti, and an essential Christmas music playlist

Matt Labash Columnist
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Matt: What do you want for Christmas? Alternatively, what don’t you want for Christmas? Eyeing a 7 foot pine on the side of the Beltway, I remain ever vigilant in regarding you with all the best –  Sydney

If I’m not mistaking your inferences while sucking up to the advice columnist, I much appreciate any offer to fashion me a fly rod from scratch, even if it’s made out of unusable Beltway Pine. But it’s completely unnecessary. Though if you find any supple Beltway Bamboo, go ahead and get started. When I was a child, Christmas was all about getting: my football cards, my Adventure People action figures, my Easy Bake Oven (don’t ask, I won’t tell).

But when I became a man, I put away childish things. Now that I’m older, my joy comes from watching others receive. As with my wife, for instance. This year, I will again give her the gift of myself (she’s in luck – the Labash store is in stock). Yes, I could buy her the $15 gift card to Shoney’s or the long-lasting Renuzit Winter Berry air freshener. But how much stuff is enough?

So if this Christmas morning bears any resemblance to Christmas mornings past, then before the kids empty their stockings, or my dog gets his unusually large butcher’s bone, I will stand in front of the couch as my family sits on it, pulling Fraser Fir needles out of daddy’s glutes, because he will have again wrapped himself in a bow after getting into the chocolate chip cookies and Christmas Dewar’s left for Santa the night before (“Just leave the bottle out, kids – Santa needs to stay hydrated with all that chimney soot”), before passing out buck naked under the tree, lending scary new dimensions to the term “yule log.”

On an abruptly different, and more sober note, I received an early Christmas present the other day: the gift of perspective. This past January, I traveled to Haiti right after the earthquake to profile an American priest who lives there named Father Rick Frechette. You can read my Weekly Standard piece on him here and see the harrowing photos here.

To give you the CliffsNotes version of how Frechette’s life looks, I could tell you about how he regularly travels the streets of one of the world’s worst slums, Cite Soleil, to deliver food and clean water, and to negotiate the release of kidnapping victims from some of the country’s most ruthless gangsters. I could tell you how he cleans out the city’s Boschian morgue, to give the nameless, unclaimed dead a comparatively dignified burial in makeshift cardboard coffins where the forgotten are planted in a place that translates from Creole as “The Fields of Less Than Nothing.” But if I really had to sum up what he does, it is this: Father Rick finds beauty amidst unremitting ugliness.

One day, when I was visiting the medical facility that Frechette started just outside Port-au-Prince called St. Damien Hospital, I was working the wards, trying to ask impossibly inadequate questions of young children who were newly absent limbs, and parents, and hope, after the apocalyptic catastrophe that had befallen their already broken nation. Abetting my awkwardness was an inexplicably cheerful and bright-eyed young Haitian named Ridore – who was living in the streets himself after the quake – but who gamely tried to translate my English into Creole and then back into broken English. We spent the afternoon hearing horror after horror, and the evening drinking armfuls of Prestige beer together, trying to forget them.

I hadn’t heard from Ridore since I left eleven months ago, and had indeed forgotten that I’d ever given him my contact information in the first place.  But an e-mail arrived from him the other day, with the subject line “Hi Mr. Matt,” reminding me of who he was and inquiring about my well-being. I greeted him warmly, asking how he was doing. He wrote back: “As the same when you left Haiti, still living in the street, without anything, and I lead a difficult moment in my life, so I have not any hope. How is your Christmas?”

When I probed further, he told me his translating work at the hospital dried up after all the foreigners left. Now, he said, “I just stay in the street without nothing to do.” Just as when he worked with me in person, he asked for nothing. I had to put money in his hand then, which he accepted, but didn’t expect. Now, I don’t know what to give him. What do you give to someone who lives in a hellhole at the end of the earth, and who is fresh out of hope, the only meager commodity he ever possessed?

A little rusty on the scriptures that I was forced to memorize during Vacation Bible School as a child, I feebly tried to cobble some together that might bring him a little. I relayed the story of Daniel, another translator, who fearful that he would be executed for being unable to translate King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, cried out to God for mercy. God revealed what the king’s dream meant, leaving Daniel to praise God, saying, “He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.”

I gave it a go, fumbling as awkwardly as I did during those afternoons in the wards filled with child amputees, and hit ‘send.’ A few days later, Ridore responded with this: “Thank you a lot Mr. Matt for those passages in the bible and sincerely they comfort me so much and I always read them. I’m sure God will open a door and show me what to do and I will not lose hope because I trust God and he is my shepherd. May peace the lord be with you and God bless and protect you. Ridore.”

Ridore will not now, nor maybe ever, have a Christmas that resembles ours. There will be no Beltway Bamboo fly rods or Christmas Dewars or even a Renuzit Winter Berry air freshener. But I suspect he already possesses something most of us never will – the capacity to write a letter like that, under the circumstances in which he finds himself. You ask what I want for Christmas? It’s to send a few prayers up for Ridore. And though the Haitian postal system is shoddy to nonexistent, if you feel moved to send him anything else, write in to, and I’ll try to find a secure way to get it to him.

Radio stations play the same Christmas songs over and over. What songs would you play if you could choose? – Phyllis J.

When radio stations begin playing Christmas music in earnest shortly after Easter in an effort to turn us from chastened, recession-bleary penny pinchers back into lusty little consumers, it becomes a veritable holly-jolly assault on both our ears and good taste. Nothing says “convert to atheism” quite like the 435th play of “Ring Christmas Bells,” or even the first play of Manheim Steamroller’s version of “Deck the Halls.” So if I was Christmas’s programming director, here’s how it would look, complete with YouTube videos. Improve your holiday season. Make this your playlist:

1. Best secular Christmas classic: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This 1944 song, first introduced in the film Meet Me in St. Louis, is so well-crafted, it’s hard to butcher, though many have tried. As with most standards he sings, it’s hard to beat Frank Sinatra’s version:

Though if you prefer one sans the distracting background singers, try James Taylor’s cover:

2. Best religious Christmas classic: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Almost any version does the trick. But in order to preserve the mystical eeriness, it should be sung by an echoing unaccompanied choir, as evidenced by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers:

3.  “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” by Tom Waits.  The only mention of Christmas in this song is in the title, though since it’s the best song title of all time, in addition to being one of my favorite Tom Waits tunes, it bears inclusion:

4.  For many, Christmas is a time for spiraling depression. And there’s no way to wallow in it quite as satisfyingly as Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” the soundtrack for that most famous of depressives, Charlie Brown, in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”:

5. In case Charlie Brown doesn’t depress you enough, and you’re up for the full-tilt Sylvia Plath Christmas, I’d go with Joni Mitchell’s “River”:

6.  The best Christmas song when the person you should be spending Christmas with is nowhere in the vicinity, The Pretenders’“2000 Miles”:

7.  Christmas CD everyone should own: “Where Will You Be Christmas Day” – brought to you by the Georgia-based independent label Dust-to-Digital, makers of the single best box of gospel and early holiness music ever assembled, “Goodbye, Babylon.” Even the names of the artists in this collection (Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers, Butterbeans and Susie, Fiddlin’ John Carson & His Virginia Reelers), make you want to dig in.

8  “Merry Christmas Baby” – This 1947 R&B tune, originally performed by Johnny Moore’s Three Trailblazers, has been covered by everyone from Elvis to Bruce Springsteen. Though my far-and-away favorite version, beating out even Otis Redding’s, is Chuck Berry’s cover, which showcases Johnnie Johnson’s mesmerizing piano runs:

It featured prominently in one of the three greatest films of all-time, Barry Levinson’s Diner, when Kevin Bacon’s character Fenwick gets drunk and decides to displace Jesus in the manger of a nativity scene, proving that even the Christ child is just a few degrees removed from Kevin Bacon.

Honorable mention: Brother Ray knocks the cover off the ball, too:

9. Chet Baker’s version of “Time After Time.” This is not the grating Cindi Lauper song (made less so by Eva Cassidy). Rather, this refers to the 1947 jazz standard written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. It is not anywhere close to a Christmas song, but Christmas is when I prefer to listen to this incomparable version by Baker, as it is the sound of snow falling. Stick around for the horn solo at the 2:15 mark:

10.  “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. I never cared much for the “Little Drummer Boy” – all that parumpum-pumping gets on my last nerves after about five seconds. But with Bowie walking the high wire on “Peace on Earth,” it clicks perfectly. One of the unlikeliest duets in music history, the song was originally taped in 1977 for Bing Crosby’s annual Christmas special. According to the musical internet authority, Raven the Rock’n’Roll Maven, Crosby passed away about a month later, and never lived to see it air. Though it has the feel of a classic song, “Peace on Earth” was written specifically for Bowie, since he felt “Little Drummer Boy” didn’t suit his voice. He and Crosby nailed it after only one hour of rehearsal and three takes. Though rumors abounded that Crosby had no idea who Bowie was, Crosby told a reporter a few days later that Bowie was “a clean cut kid and a real fine asset to the show.”

11 “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” – Also, not technically a Christmas song, though it’s often included on Christmas album compilations, because you need to listen to something the day after Christmas expires, and this beautiful offering only has about a one-week shelf life per year. Ella Fitzgerald’s version is choice:

Though Harry Connick’s might be even better.

12.  Best newer Christmas song: The Weepies’ “All that I Want.” It’s a tune I initially spotted in a JCPenney commercial (who says commercialism is the devil?). When I first went looking for it on YouTube, someone had put it up to a video of Newport Beach’s Christmas Boat Parade, the perfect complement. But since then, that video has been taken down. So my strong suggestion for maximum enjoyment is to play the song here:

while simultaneously turning the sound down on this video as the song plays:

There are, of course, plenty of men’s men on this list – Tom Waits, Sinatra, Chuck Berry. But with Joni Mitchell, The Pretenders, and the Weepies – some of it runs a little chickish. Perhaps I should amend my earlier what-I-want-for-Christmas statement. Maybe I need another Easy Bake Oven after all.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” was published this spring by Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.