Nearly two decades have passed since the American recording industry has been able to introduce a new song into the Christmas canon, Chris Klimek argued yesterday right here on Slate. Each year brings us new versions of old chestnuts like “White Christmas,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and Mariah Carey’s 1994 smash “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” But for some reason—increased secularism? the shifting economics of the music business? lack of cheer?—pop stars and their collaborators have given up on writing new holiday classics, or at least stopped trying very hard. (Exhibit A: Justin Bieber.)
As Klimek points out, pop culture hasn’t totally lost its yuletide way; in fact, some of the season’s best efforts are being written not by musicians, but by comedians. Take, as Klimek does, Stephen Colbert’s swinging “Another Christmas Song,” from 2008, an ostensible comment on holiday-music oversaturation that doubles as a how-to guide to cashing in on the genre.
As it happens, the only original Christmas song to even gently shake the cultural firmament in the post-Mariah era was also written by funny men, but you can just as easily make the case for it as a pop anthem. “I Wish It Was Christmas Today,” an original Saturday Night Live song that was first performed in a December 2000 skit by Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Kattan, and Tracy Morgan deserves a spot in the Christmas canon.
Not that you’d think so watching its inaugural rendition, in which half the joke is that it looks and sounds like a children’s rockabilly song on a public-access television Christmas special. The cast members are only kind of matching in maroon sweaters and gray slacks; snow falling, most of it into Fallon’s hair. “One,” Sanz calls before restarting his countdown, and Fallon queues up a chintzy MIDI track on the keyboard Kattan is holding. “I don’t care what your momma says, Christmas time is near,” Sanz sings while holding a backpacker guitar. “I don’t care what your daddy says, Christmas time is dear. All I know is that Santa’s sleigh is making its way to the U.S.A.” Fallon barely harmonizes (and struggles to not crack up); Kattan and Morgan are stone-faced, and neither is singing (Morgan is doing something between jogging in place and trotting like a reindeer). By the end, all Fallon can do is air-drum and hit dinosaur noises on the keyboard. “I don’t care about the CIA, I don’t care what the calendar say,” Sanz sings. “I wish it was Christmas today.”
The song was back on SNL a year later, with a string-quartet fake-out, upgraded sweaters, a full-throated Sanz performance, and genuinely successful harmonies from Fallon. (There are still dinosaur noises.) It returned the next year, too, with the cast members dressed as Christmas toys (particularly amazing are Morgan as Elmo and Fallon as Harry Potter) and a few new lyrics (“All I know is that Santa Claus don’t care about breaking no flying laws. Santa’s bringing goodies to the boys and girls in every nook and cranny in this crazy-ass world.”) By 2004, Fallon, Kattan, and Morgan had left the show, so Sanz performed it with Muppets. (According to this blog post—one of many tributes to the song—there may be be a few other versions, but at this point tracking them down practically requires scraping the deep Web, since they’re no longer available on NBC’s website or on Hulu.)
What makes “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” so great? It is charming (someone is almost always giggling), gratifyingly lo-fi, performance art-like in the deliberateness of its nonsense, and ultimately true in its sentiment: We all wish it was Christmas today, don’t we?
Even better: In an era in which pop stars have run out of things to say about Christmas, the central conceit of “I Wish It Was Christmas Today”—that the onset of the holiday is something your parents, local newsman, and mayor might oppose, but you’re celebrating it anyway—brings some refreshing danger to the year’s staidest season. It may be winkingly punk, but it’s still kind of punk. (It’s also a perfect rejoinder to the Grinch-like cliché that Christmas arrives earlier every year.)
Most importantly, it’s an earworm with the bones of a fantastic pop song: An utterly rousing cover that the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas released in 2009 proves it. (It helps that Casablancas makes the song’s intentionally flat chorus soar.) By that point, Fallon had begun hosting NBC’s Late Night, and he resurrected the song that year with Sanz, Casablancas, and the Roots. Then he brought it back again—with Sanz, Kattan, and Morgan in tow—when he hosted SNL in 2011.
Is “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” a fledgling standard? The handful of online tributes to the song could qualify it as a cult gem, and fans have uploaded an impressive number of covers to YouTube.
So now it’s up to pop artists: Vampire Weekend could do an erudite reading of the song; Katy Perry could give it a bubble-gum coating. Updating the lyrics for 2013 won’t be a stretch. “I don’t care about the NSA,” one version might go. “I don’t care what the president say. I wish it was Christmas today.”
And after Fallon ascends to the Tonight Show chair next year, he could institute a new tradition: Just as his soon-to-be-competitor David Letterman brings Darlene Love on The Late Show each year to sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Fallon should book Sanz, Kattan, and Morgan every December for a new rendition of their own, underloved Christmas classic.
Just one request: Keep the dinosaur noises.