The Beatles’ Christmas albums are wacky and whimsical, until they’re not

The Beatles’ Christmas albums are wacky and whimsical, until they’re not

The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn’t sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we’re having a good time. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. We’ve got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit. This week’s theme: the holidays where you least expect them.

For a lonely boy in the 1980s, the desire to be an expert on something often took the place of nonexistent friends. For me, it was The Beatles. And though expert status was harder to come by in a pre-Internet world, it was also easier to get away with—you could amass a volume of facts if you dug hard enough, and it was harder, or at least too inconvenient, for others to verify or disprove the depths of your expertise. So I fashioned an armor of Beatles trivia against what seemed the cold indifference of the world—meaning kids at school. And girls. My friend Mark (note the singular) and I even meticulously compiled our own 100-page Beatles trivia book and were taken aback at the politely glassy “I don’t know”s of parents and the unconcealed hostile indifference of classmates.

A necessary ritual for the aspiring Beatles geek was a trip to Beatles conventions, which mainly consisted of surly, suspicious older versions of ourselves standing behind long tables full of memorabilia in a Holiday Inn conference room. The Holy Grail of such expeditions was supposed to be the legendary “unpeeled butcher cover.” (The short story: The Beatles had posed for the cover of Yesterday And Today dressed smilingly in bloodstained butchers’ smocks strewn with meat and dismembered baby dolls. When the album was unsurprisingly recalled, a small number were re-released with the offending image covered up by a sticker. Most were peeled off—the ones that weren’t were worth big bucks.) But for Mark and me, the real unattainable prizes were The Beatles’ Christmas Records.

Sent out every Christmastime by The Beatles themselves to members of the official fan club, the 45s were personalized thank-yous from The Beatles themselves to their most dedicated fans. And although I wasn’t born until the year the last one was sent out in 1969, I was certain that they were meant for me as much as any aging former fan who’d carelessly discarded theirs in a box somewhere. Plus, while I’d heard the songs on Yesterday And Today (on their original pressings, thank you very much), I’d never heard these coveted personal messages from The Beatles. There was simply no way to listen to them without prying them from the grasping hands of those record dealers with an inconceivable (to a 13-year-old) wad of cash. My parents, tolerant of my personal Beatlemania but hardly about to fork over the hundreds of dollars necessary to make a Christmas present of these Christmas relics, demurred. And so I never heard my idols wishing me “happy crimble” until much later.

Started in 1963 as a brainchild of Beatles PR guy Tony Barrow, the records, while initially an attempt to appease disgruntled fans whose unanswered letters multiplied exponentially in company offices, also offer a window into the growth and gradual dissolution of the band. If 13-year-old Dennis had ever gotten his wish, these recordings would have delighted—and then crushed him. From the initial efforts (written by Barrow) which show John, Paul, George, and Ringo as the brightly silly, slightly rebellious goofballs promised by their antics in A Hard Day’s Night, to the ambitious (while still very silly) middle period (where the guys took over creatively), to the last few, which, worryingly, mirrored the rumored dissolution of the band, the whole of Beatles history is captured in five-minute snatches, a year apart, at Christmastime. 

The 1963 entry, simply titled The Beatles Christmas Record, starts with the lads’ off-key and deliberately malaprop rendition of “Good King Wenceslas” (John asserting that the “snow lay down, deep and crisp and crispy”) segueing to each of them in turn wishing fans the promised holiday greeting. Barrow’s fingerprints are all over the record—there are several apologies for not answering fan mail, a recap of recent history and what they like best about being Beatles, Paul’s disclaimer that they no longer care for a certain kind of sweet (they’d become inundated with Jelly Babies), overuse of the trendy adjective “gear,” and George’s “sincere” thanks to the women who run the fan club (Amber, Tina, and Freda must have been thrilled). However, the group’s collective, puckish charisma leaks through. John announces his greeting by explaining, “This is John, speaking with his voice” and excusing his delinquent writing with the fact he “hasn’t enough pens.” Paul ends his pre-written statement by suddenly bursting into a German version of the carol. And throughout, the guys occasionally crack each other up, burst out barking and whistling, and generally behave like a quartet of mischievous, suddenly famous young men amusing themselves in the face of corporate obligation. 

1964’s Another Beatles Christmas Record, also written by Barrow, sees the band members in open rebellion, blowing kazoos, deliberately misreading and mocking the script, and basically giggling themselves silly. John’s penchant for absurdist wordplay, evidenced in his then-recently published book In His Own Write (which he plugs here), is on full display (“Merry goo year, crimble maybe”). Paul joins in, saying they had fun “melting the records.” And George and Ringo can barely get through their appointed copy, especially when a glass smashes in the background, before they all exit chanting “Happy Christmas” like a quartet of Monty Python’s Gumbys. While bordering on boorishness, fans no doubt delighted in how their idols were flouting authority—even if they worried that the band was getting too big for the annual prezzie.

But while The Beatles were firmly cemented in at the top of the pops (and the world) by the end of 1965, they continued their tradition with The Third Beatles Christmas Record, although they were casting only one eye toward Barrow’s no-doubt carefully prepared missive by this point before gleefully jumping the rails and following their inner goofballs. They enter crooning a wobbly rendition of the already ubiquitous “Yesterday,” and toss off a few thanks amid five minutes of improvisational mucking about, throwing in snatches of “Auld Lang Syne” in a variety of accents and styles (there’s some Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan in there) and starting a clearly improvised Christmas song before trailing off into strangled mumbles. The Beatles (credited as co-writers this time) deliver unto their fans the aural equivalent of having their idols over for a rambunctious Christmas piss-up. 

Pantomime: Everywhere It’s Christmas, the band’s 1966 release, begins with The Beatles squarely in charge, announcing their presence with the rousing, music hall-style Everywhere It’s Christmas (which they’ve actually written ahead of time). Gone are the perfunctory thank-yous. Instead, the band gives the fans, for the first time, a unique gift in itself, a whirlwind tour of nonsensical Christmas celebrations around the world. From the lovely piano melody accompanying a “bearded man in glasses conducting a small choir” in Corsica, to the yodels of the Swiss Alps where “a pair of elderly Scotsmen munch on a rare cheese,” to the chaotic celebration in a royal court (with cries for a doctor in the background), to a toast for Her Majesty in the mess of the HMS Tremendous, to the comically German Count Balder requesting a Christmas song (resulting in the ludicrously risqué “Don’t bring your banjo bag, I don’t know where it’s been”), the guys indulge in free-form flights of fancy that recall the Goons, or the later Firesign Theater. Taking the yuletide obligation as an opportunity to explore their whimsical storytelling side (as in John and Paul’s unabashedly charming children’s interlude about Jasper and Podgy) and comic chops, the Beatles get into the holiday spirit with five minutes of enchanting silliness that Python fans would surely recognize a few years later. 

Disappearing even further into giddy absurdism, 1967’s Christmas Time Is Here Again sees the band crafting another panoply of random comic skits all stemming from a Wizard Of Oz-esque quest to audition at “BBC House” for a Christmas pageant. Beginning with the title song (the great chorus of the full-on Christmas song The Beatles never wrote), the record sees The Beatles doing more silly accents, tap dancing, singing a peppy song about jam jars, emceeing a game show, and portraying a group repeatedly singing a song about trousers before seemingly being dropped down a bottomless pit. Again, The Beatles (reportedly aping the radio shenanigans of their friends in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) seize the opportunity of their Christmas message to express their collective affinity with the weird. Everyone gets in on the fun, and the band’s growing experimentation with psychedelia bleeds through as the last minute becomes an eerie chamber of echoes, distortion, and loops, before John, affecting a Scottish accent, reads a lonely, nonsensical Christmas poem over the growing howl of a cold winter wind. It’s like a concentrated version of 1967’s overblown Magical Mystery Tour.

Unfortunately, Beatles fans couldn’t help but feel the band’s Christmas spirit slip away over the next two years, as the band’s interminably publicized internal strife manifested itself in the Christmas records’ lackluster presentation. Unlike the slapdash innocence and enthusiasm of the early years, the tossed-off nature of the final two recordings smack of indifference and each member’s increased self-indulgence and isolation. 

For all the records’ busyness and studio gimmickry, it’s obvious that the individual Beatles recorded their contributions separately. Ringo offers a stiff “merry Christmas” on the 1968 record and asks the studio technician to leave in a plug for his film The Magic Christian in 1969. George hardly appears at all, sounding as remote and uninterested in all things Beatle as he indeed was becoming. (Bringing in Tiny Tim in for an interminable version of “Nowhere Man” on the 1968 record seems almost deliberately mocking.) Paul, constitutionally unable to turn off his innate tunesmanship, produces a brace of tinkly Christmas snatches that are catchy despite themselves. And John gives vent to his growing focus on Yoko with a transparently bitter poem about “Jock” and “Yono” battling against “overwhelming oddities, including some of their beast friends.” In the last ever Beatles Christmas record, he and Yoko natter interminably about themselves while crunching through the leaves on their estate, amusing themselves and occasionally breaking into deliberately atonal song. 

But before that, John absently lapses into a chorus of “Good King Wenceslas,” momentarily providing a sad, distant echo of the first Beatles Christmas record, when they were all young, and seemingly happy to be goofing around with friends, making silly joke records to send to fans who probably also thought things would last forever. 

Tomorrow: A movie that brings the Christmas spirit (at least the secular one) to even those who don’t celebrate the holiday.