More often than not, when an artist records a Christmas album it is an apocalyptic sign that their career is rapidly spiraling downward and they are looking to capture some semblance of escaping relevance. Aimee Mann is an exception to that rule. Her latest release, One More Drifter in the Snow, is Christmas music for a new generation.
Mann has included plenty of familiar holiday classics like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “White Christmas” but the arrangements re-imagine their emotional core from an angle all her own. In this way, Mann works like a good theologian—wiping the rust off of a relevant core message and re-interpreting it for a contemporary crowd.
The Grinch Generation
But Mann is also the child of a generation for whom The Grinch and Charlie Brown meant much more than “White Christmas” ever did. Many young adults will recall the ritual of sprawling in front of the television with a bowl of popcorn to watch those timeless holiday cartoons. For them, Charlie Brown’s pathetic Christmas tree or Burl Ives’ goateed, singing snowman is a Yuletide tradition every bit as essential as Johnny Mathis or Bing Crosby might be for their parents or grandparents. In her version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” from Dr. Seuss’ classic tale The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Mann has found the perfect fit for her characteristically droll tone.
But it is Mann’s only original song in the collection “Calling on Mary”— which closes the cd—that makes One More Drifter in the Snow truly remarkable. When all of the gifts have been opened, the wrapping paper is strewn around the house and the dull ache of the holiday hangover is setting in, Mann poignantly articulates why we subject ourselves to all the celebratory madness. It is daring to write a song about the Virgin Mary and call it a Christmas tune—the name of the holiday reveals who is really at center stage on December 25. This may be Mann’s feminist interpretation or perhaps it reveals a touch of her personal spirituality. In either case, it’s about time that Mary was the sole focus of a Christmas song and “Calling on Mary” succeeds beautifully on a number of levels.
The song opens with image of a sidewalk Santa saying
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas/Salvation’s coming cheap today/Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.
In the second verse a Biblical image of hope and guidance is turned into a lonely plea:
I searched the skyline for a star…
And baby I wondered where you are.
Mann has never been afraid to tackle the underside of life in her music, the disappointments, the heartache, and the regrets. In “Calling on Mary” she identifies a reality that isn’t generally voiced in Christmas music, namely the loneliness that accompanies the holiday for many people. “Calling on Mary,” she sings, “…is voluntary, unless you’re alone like me.” We have sanitized the story of the Nativity in many ways, and Mann peels back the kitschy façade and shakes us up. For those who find the winter holidays depressing and lonely, who better to call on but a young girl who found herself unexpectedly pregnant? This must have been a profound experience of loneliness for Mary, even though there were others around her.
The title of this collection of songs comes from a line toward the end of “Calling on Mary.” “And to all the lost souls down below…What’s one more drifter in the snow?” To a God who took human form and was born into a humble environment, the lost drifter in the snow is precisely the focus—not Santa, not the extravagant meals, not the smartly wrapped gifts. With a tender note of hope, in the final stanza Mann repeats the line, “If there’s a star above, then it can look like love.” The star above led some to find Mary, patroness of the lonely souls and mother of the Christ-child. If you see a star above this Christmas, think of the ones you love, remember the drifter in the snow, and send up a note of thanks for the modern-day patroness of lonely souls, Aimee Mann.