Everybody who celebrates Christmas has a particular song, or perhaps an entire Christmas album, that rattles around eternally in their brain. Maybe you love The Eternal Christmas Song That Inhabits Your Mind, and how it begins to play in your mind more regularly, more insistently, as the days grow shorter and the holidays grow nearer. Maybe you despise it, a part of your music-memory that cannot be killed or quashed.
Perhaps you have merely come to accept the fact that The Eternal Christmas Song has adhered itself to your psyche and that you'll never get rid of it: an incurable, festive ear-worm that will be with you until you die.
For me, that Eternal Christmas Music is the Jethro Tull Christmas Album. In a way that no other Christmas music does, it captures my complex feelings toward the holiday as a non-religious person who still wants to find meaning and reflection in the end of the year (somewhere in between all the drinking and eating). It is beautiful Christmas music for secular people who overthink Christmas. And who have a really high tolerance for jazz flute.
Let me explain myself.
As a millennial, I am not exactly of the Jethro Tull demographic. That is, if Jethro Tull could ever honestly be said to have had a demographic. The band was formed in 1967 and hit its peak of prog-rock popularity in the 1970s. While weirdly jigging and flute-wielding front-man Ian Anderson has kept Jethro Tull and Jethro-Tull like bands alive and selling albums ever since - a new studio album came out in July 2021 - it’s always been something of a niche act. The global audience for flute-filled concept albums about climate change and English pagan folklore that are named things like “Crest of a Knave” was never going to be enormous.
I wasn’t raised with the Jethro Tull Christmas album, which is one mechanism by which people get really into music outside of their demographic target audience. It did not wriggle its way into my brain because it was involuntarily inflicted on me by a loopy prog-rock loving family member. It also isn’t all that old. The Jethro Tull Christmas Album was released as a single work in 2003, as a compilation of many older Christmas-adjacent songs from prior albums.
No, I found Jethro Tull’s Christmas music all by myself, and I welded it into my brain of my own volition. I only have myself and the Internet to blame for my life-long love of loopy prog-rock themed around magical forests.
I discovered Jethro Tull when I was 13, back in 2001. I was in the middle of a particularly annoying classic rock phase, the sort of life-stage that socially awkward only children go through in a bid to impress their parent's cool, childless friends.
Instead of pursuing a healthy early-2000s tween social life with age appropriate interests like shouty pop punk music, chunky black highlights, and fighting on Myspace, I spent my free time alone in my room hunched, vulure-like, in front of my iMac.
My priceless memories of 8th grade revolve largely around getting into arguments about rose symbolism on a Cowboy Bebop internet message board and hunting down mislabeled psychedelic rock band tracks on Limewire.
The early 2000s Cowboy Bebop fandom was dominated by moderately-cool 20-somethings with what I now realize in retrospect was superb taste in music. I was a 13-year-old unformed homonculus, a mere clump of hipster-adjacent modeling clay with a good Internet connection . I wanted to be like them, so I listened to whatever they listened to, even if they were listening to it a little bit ironically.
It was, I think, through one of these mostly ironic suggestions that I came to discover Jethro Tull. Someone suggested "Aqualung" to me on the forum. I dutifully found it.
You probably know how Aqualung starts. There’s that weirdly immortal guitar riff, the sort-of-chanting thing Ian Anderson gets up to. The oddly poignant lyrics about a particularly grotesque subject. And then the flute, which somehow sounded menacing - how did they do that, I thought to myself, a creepy man-eating flute in a prog rock song?
I loved it, and I wanted more, and best of all, I was pretty sure that this music would disgust and mortify other people my age - proving that I was better and cooler than them, even though they went to parties where people had weed, and I spent all my time online, talking about the motivations of anime characters. I spent the rest of my high school and college years going through the entire Jethro Tull oeuvre.
No one thought this was cool, including the Boomer generation that launched Jethro Tull in the first place. Older people congratulated me if I told them I liked The Clash, or The Kinks: when I told them I’d listened to all of “Thick as a Brick” voluntarily, most looked at me like I had sprouted a third eyeball.
I didn’t care. Unlike most of the other classic rock bands that I was culturally conditioned to listen to in my teenage years, Jethro Tull still holds my interest.
Ian Anderson deserves a lot of the credit for this, because, far as I can determine, he is a perfectly nice person who is smart enough not to say anything horrible in public. In a recent interview, Anderson expressed support for masks and vaccines, and revealed that he’d volunteered for Covid vaccine trials. In the year 2021, a former mid-century rock-star who isn’t leaning into being awful is a rare and precious thing.
And so Jethro Tull, and the Christmas music, persists in my life. Like clockwork, I start playing it as soon as Thanksgiving is over. Mostly, it’s a personal ritual, in this era of private music-consumption. That’s true even if part of me really wants to blast Jethro Tull at unwilling victims at parties, and it’s not like we have those anymore, anyway.
Each year, as time passes, the music speaks to me more and more. I remember when I first came upon Jethro Tull's 1972 Christmas Song, which begins with the gentle shaking of sleigh bells, earthy acoustic guitar, the expected flute riff. I have a lot of memories attached to the album, and to that song in particular.
Consider the winter of 2006, when I was trudging miserably through a snow drift back to my freshman dormitory in western Massachusetts in late December right before the holiday break began . (The weather forecast actually said "stinging ice pellets," which I had initially refused to believe were real, or that the universe could be so cruel as to create them).
I was listening to my iPod, which made the trudging seem a bit less bleak, and I had justcome down a hill skirting the edge of the forest that surrounded the campus when the "Christmas Song" came on, with the first few strangely haunting words: "Once, in Royal David's City.”
I paused for a moment and looked around me, at the thick untouched snow, blue in the darkness, and the dense woods around me, and the song made me feel something that felt particularly old, particularly relevant to the frightening length of winter in northern latitudes.
I was born in Florida and had spent most of my life in places where winter only gets mildly chilly at the very worst, not places where winter actively can mutilate you. The song suddenly helped me understand the particular end-of-year feeling that all that wintery literature I'd read over the years was attempting to get at. I stood by the woods until the song ended, and went inside, humming it to myself. Every year, before Christmas, I find myself humming it still. It is a core memory.
“A Christmas Song” is also a marvelous and rare example of the Christmas song that both implores us to look deeper into the holiday without demanding we do it in an explicitly Christian way. In the song, Ian Anderson starts off with a rather fierce recitation of the famous lines from "Once in Royal David's City,” transitioning into something different.
Once in Royal David's City stood a lonely cattle shed,
where a mother held her baby.
You'd do well to remember the things He later said.
This sounds like it’s turning into yet another irritating Reason for the Season polemic by some tiresome Evangelical Christian who wants to impose their religion on everyone else. It goes on like this:
When you're stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties,
you'll just laugh when I tell you to take a running jump.
You're missing the point I'm sure does not need making
that Christmas spirit is not what you drink.
So how can you laugh when your own mother's hungry,
and how can you smile when the reasons for smiling are wrong?
And if I just messed up your thoughtless pleasures,
remember, if you wish, this is just a Christmas song.
The message isn’t that everything will be resolved if we all become Christians and believe in the relevant deities really hard - which is the trap that most “deep” Christmas music falls into. The message is that Christ probably had some wise things to say about “not allowing innocent people to suffer,” and the Christmas season is a good time to keep these messages about compassion in mind It is a far more secular message than most “deep” Christmas music.
That speaks to me, because I am a person who isn’t a Christian who still buys into the idea of the holiday being about something more than getting hammered and buying each other scented soaps.
I hold great affection for the ambient, fuzzy idea of Christmas, or Yule, or whatever solstice holiday one might wish to observe. I very much don't believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that he moved an enormous rock from a tomb and made an inordinate number of fish (which is a real marketable skill).
I find something nice in how, during the holidays, people are asked to pay at least some lip service to the idea of global peace, love, and human connection. In the US, Christmas is a moment for aspirational hope. It’s a time period in which we are encouraged to believe in a world where most other people aren’t horrible assholes. Even at the end of 2021, after two years of a horrific global pandemic, it is nice to briefly consider if better things are possible.
In the modern American calendar, we have very few times in the year that are specifically earmarked (if only in theory) for sitting around with a drink and contemplating the year that has come, the things that one is surrounded by in the moment and the things that one might wish to be surrounded by in the future.
I find myself using Christmas as a good excuse to consider the ineffable, take stock of things, try to do a better job of appreciating my existence, and I don't believe that I need to be a sworn deity-botherer to take Dec 25th as a convenient opportunity to do so.
The Jethro Tull Christmas Album captures that feeling, and it also captures the other, more secular feelings that most of us experience during the holidays. Consider the lovely picture painted by “Fire at Midnight”:
I believe in fires at midnight
When the dogs have all been fed.
A golden toddy on the mantle
A broken gun beneath the bed.
And then, what person who travels hasn’t had some variation of this thought about being away, and the weight of that?
Me, I'll sit and write this love song
As I all too seldom do
Build a little fire this midnight.
It's good to be back home with you.
Or, consider the middle-aged melancholy of First Snow on Brooklyn. It’s another song with a theme of holiday travel (something I can really identify with, as a person who almost always travels for holidays, sometimes great distances). It’s also a song about regret, mistakes, and how the combination of travel and the cold chill of winter gets you thinking about them. (Are you really wanted here? Was coming here a good idea at all?)
I flew in on the evening plane.
Is it such a good idea that I am here again?
And I could cut my cold breath with a knife.
And taste the winter of another life.
Then there’s “Another Christmas Song,” which revolves around an old man calling his children home for the holidays. I’ve always found the message about gathering and reunion poignant, but it does take on a certain special tinge in the second year of a pandemic that has systematically prevented us from gathering, and that has kept old people in particularly stark isolation.
Sharp ears are tuned in to the drones and chanters warming.
Mist blowing round some headland, somewhere in your memory.
Everyone is from somewhere
Even if you've never been there.
So take a minute to remember the part of you
That might be the old man calling me.
It’s music that captures the way I feel about the holidays, in all its complexity. This sentiment is something Ian Anderson seems to share with me. He writes about this in the introduction to the Christmas Album, which I'll quote here in its entirety.
"I'm not exactly a practicing paid-up Christian but I have grown up and lived with a so-called Christian society for 55 years and still feel great warmth for the nostalgia, festive occasion and family togetherness, so much a part of that time of year.
Maybe without Christmas we would have that much less to celebrate and enjoy in this troubled old world. But it's really all the Winter Solstice and the re-birth of nature overlaid with the common sense and righteous teachings of Mr. C.."
Yes, that sounds about right. Perhaps I like Jethro Tull's Christmas music because it is the best soundtrack I've found to my own non-believing desire to imbue some sort of meaning to the holiday, a meaning that I'm more comfortable with than either the buying-things version or the literalist-Christian-ritual flavor. In the hell year 2021, I need it more than ever.