I don’t remember the first time I heard Jim Reeves’ “An Old Christmas Card,” but I do remember my reaction. I laughed. How could I not? I would’ve been around 16 at the time, and the song is so, so corny, even for people who aren’t know-it-all teenage brats. I mean, it’s a syrupy paean to the first card that the narrator’s wife ever bought for him. That’s right: a Christmas card. Not a present. Not even an ornament. Just a card, which meant so much to the singer that even now, “I thrill to every word, every line.”
The song lopes along until it gets to this spoken-word passage:
You know, I don’t know why I get to feeling sentimental about this time every year. But every time I see a Christmas card, I somehow can’t help reminiscing about the very first Christmas that you and I spent together. What a beautiful Christmas card you gave me that year. Why, I know you must have looked through thousands of cards to find that wonderful poem that still brings a tear to my eye.
There was nothing about Reeves’ recitation that didn’t slay me at 16. Thousands of cards? An actual tear? My stars. Even today, I can’t hear the word “poem” without mumbling “won-der-ful po-em” to myself, the way Reeves says it in this song, drawing out every syllable.
I put “An Old Christmas Card” on a holiday mix-tape I made in college, alongside traditional carols, some classical Christmas music, and other goofy pop novelties. The tape became a seasonal favorite, played in the car throughout December and slapped on at parties, so my friends and I could belt along to selections from Handel’s Messiah and then enjoy the goofy abandon of Billy May’s “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo.” I’ve long-since digitized that tape’s contents and added new Christmas music that I’ve discovered in the years since. But when I put that Christmas mix-list on shuffle, it’s the songs from my old tape that I most look forward to hearing.
And I have to admit: Somewhere in the past 25 years, my feelings toward “An Old Christmas Card” have changed. It’s still a sappy song, don’t get me wrong. I picture its writer—country music hitmaker Vaughn Horton—sitting down with his guitar, trying to think of a Christmas-related topic that hadn’t been sung into the ground. And then I picture him trying to find a way to make a dull old Christmas card far more fraught with emotion than it’s ever been before. (“Pardon me if a tear falls among my Christmas cheer,” indeed.)
But when I heard the song for the first time as a kid, I didn’t have a proper tuition in the history of country music, or what it takes to write a song and land it on the charts. I grew up in Nashville, and nurtured a knee-jerk anti-country attitude through most of my teen years, until a Johnny Cash greatest-hits album and a “Nice Price” cassette copy of Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger started changing my mind in college. When I moved back to Nashville after graduation and started writing for a local newspaper, I worked on a three-part series on the city’s songwriting mills, and spent months reading books about Music City history, visiting the County Music Hall Of Fame And Museum, attending a Grand Ole Opry taping, interviewing local songwriters both famous and obscure, and checking out a few open-mic nights. Taken as part of longstanding Nashville tradition, “An Old Christmas Card” isn’t so goofy. After all, it is sturdily crafted, and does what it sets out to do.
Over the years, I also came to know a lot more about Reeves and his place in country music history. Before dying in a plane crash in 1964—at age 40—Reeves was one of country’s first big pop-crossover artists, alongside Eddy Arnold and others. I still recall an ad for some K-Tel or Time-Life collection of pop standards that had Reeves’ “He’ll Have To Go” alongside the likes of Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are,” Johnnie Ray’s “Just Walkin’ In The Rain,” and The Platter’s “Only You (And You Alone).” Reeves was one of the main practitioners of the controversial “Nashville sound,” which added lush string arrangements and relaxed tempos to low, twangy voices. In that context, “An Old Christmas Card” is significant as an example of a style that both helped sustain the music industry in Nashville—at a time when C&W seemed about to fade into novelty—and provided a target at which the next generation of “outlaw country” took angry aim. That’s the push-and-pull at the center of all popular music forms, and sometimes it’s worthwhile to understand—and even learn to appreciate—what the innovators were reacting against, rather than assuming it all must’ve been shlock.
But there’s something else about Reeves’ song that’s changed for me, and that’s that over time, its sentiments have begun to resonate.
This isn’t a precise comparison, but this past Thanksgiving I was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade at my parents’ house when the cast of the recent Tony-winning Broadway revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying performed (or, okay, lip-synched) the show’s big Act II number “Brotherhood Of Man.” Now, How To Succeed is satirical, and “Brotherhood Of Man” is partly tongue-in-cheek—if not outright ironic—as it celebrates the glad-handing and unexamined assumptions that allow a nobody to make a rapid ascent up the corporate ladder. And yet Frank Loesser’s music is so triumphant, mixing the joviality of varsity rags with the transcendent surge of gospel, and the choreography and performance of this cast is so exultant that damned if I didn’t start to feel that, yeah, there is a brotherhood, and it’s wonderful to be a part of it. On an intellectual level, I get the song is winking at me. But in my heart and soul, “Brotherhood Of Man” makes me feel warm, and a little giddy.
Now, “An Old Christmas Card” isn’t trying to be smart-ass—not even a little bit. But music has a strange power to move us in ways that slip past our intellectual defenses. If characters in a movie were to speak the words of a love song to each other, most likely it’d come off as tin-eared and awkward; but if they sing them, and the melody is sweet, and the arrangement rich, there can emerge such a pure expression of emotion that connects on a visceral level. Similarly, if a song evokes a happy memory—of falling in love, or of feeling safe and content in the backseat of your parents’ car, or of holiday cheer—then you can make all the critical arguments you like about overbearing production, clunky rhymes, and shameless sentiment and you won’t shake the affection of the nostalgist.
At this point, after a quarter-century of listening to “An Old Christmas Card,” it’s become an essential and beloved component of my holiday season, up there with our stuffed Santa Claus with the misaligned leg (whom my wife has affectionately dubbed “Clubfoot Santa”), and the framed Christmas tree mosaic with working lights that my grandmother gave us when we bought our first house, and the Hank Aaron Hallmark ornament that my son gets to hang every year (usually while reciting Aaron’s career stats). Or, to put it another way: I don’t know why I get to feeling sentimental about this time every year. But every time I hear “An Old Christmas Card,” I somehow can’t help reminiscing about all the times I’ve listened to it before. Why, I must’ve listened to thousands of Christmas songs to find that wonderfully dopey Jim Reeves song that still brings a smile to my face.