Over a string-laden instrumental version of “Silent Night”, Spector proclaims his vision of “something new and different for Christmas”. In light of Spector’s murder charge, his statements come off as a bit creepy. However, in November 1963 when A Chirstmas Gift For You was released, Spector wasn’t joking. The album was so far ahead of its time in every way. Christmas songs never sounded so sexy, and alive, thanks to powerful performances by The Ronettes, Darlene Love and the Crystals. Elvis and Frank Sinatra may have recorded Christmas albums but those version were for sitting by the fire – songs you could go to sleep to. Spector’s versions went meant to be heard in bars and enjoyed by those who wander home with a random girl for Christmas- just watch the Christmas scenes in “Goodfellas” for proof.
Unfortunately, Spector’s vision of Christmas as released at the wrong time. In November 1963, not many people were thinking about sexy girls singing about Santa Claus, and reindeer. The album became a flop upon its initial release, and while it’s usually listed on a critic’s list of “the best holiday albums”, you’re more likely to find a Josh Grobin Christmas album or Mariah Carey one in the average person’s holiday collection. U2 may have given a rebirth to the album’s sole original “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in the late 80’s. I certainly enjoy U2’s version (and it’s the version I was familiar with first). But U2’s version traded in the power of the original for schmaltz.
With a few exceptions, most holiday songs or records have been slightly cheesy. But Spector’s album was anything but. Even the silly “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is given a slightly naughty reading. If the joke of the song is that Santa Claus is really daddy, Ronnie Spector makes it seem as if mommy is really cheating on daddy with Saint Nic. Of course it could be this is the only version of the song I’m familiar with, and up until a week ago, I assumed in the song’s context, Santa Claus was real.
After years of listening to Spector’s album, his version of the songs have become definitive for me. I usually can’t stand “Frosty the Snowman” (it didn’t help I cried as a kid when he melted into water at the end of the holiday special), but Ronnie Spector’s commanding voice and Hal Blaine’s pounding drums might just bring any pile of snow to life. Usually, the narrator in “White Christmas” seems to long for his or her childhood – caught up in the past longing for something that may or may not come. Darlene Love may also dream of the same “White Christmas” as Irving Berlin intended, but dammit she wants it this year.
With A Christmas Gift For You, Spector proved that Christmas music didn’t have to be for kids and their grandparents with fond memories of their childhoods. It could be exciting, fun, and even sexy. Almost 50 years after its initial release, A Christmas Gift For You remains the essential holiday pop album, because it dared to be a rock and roll/pop first instead of a Christmas album sung by rock artists.