Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. With The Beatles, and with his solo works, Lennon remains one of my favorite rock artists. If Phil Spector totally changed the way in which Christmas songs could be heard, then Lennon changed the message of what a Christmas single could be with “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, which was also produced by Spector.
Both A Christmas Gift For You and Happy Xmas are tied together not just by Spector, but also the Vietnam War. A Christmas Gift For You was in November 1963, right after President Kennedy’s assassination. Though the US was already involved in the Vietnam War, by the end of of 1963, Lyndon Johnson reversed Kennedy’s decision to remove 1,000 troops from Vietnam and ended up expanding the war. It’s little wonder that A Christmas Gift For You didn’t initially catch on under the circumstances.
Flash forward almost 6 years later to 1969, with the war at its height John Lennon and Yoko decided to rent billboards across several cities with the slogan “WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It). Happy Christmas From John and Yoko”. It would be two years later before “Happy Xmas” would be released, but the slogans served as the basis for the song.
Almost 40 years later it’s become passe to release Christmas singles or exploit the season for charity events. But it can’t be denied that the concept came from this song. Lennon, ever the political, made sure that his sentiments came through with silver bells. Here was a song designed to make the listeners think about what they’ve done over the past year. “So this is Christmas,” Lennon begins as he strums his the guitar, “and what have you done?”
Lennon’s genius shines through by making a very adult oriented theme a form (the Christmas song) normally considered “jolly”. To drive the point home, the background vocals provided by the Harlem Community Choir who sing the “war is over” slogan. Children tend to be oblivious to politics, and often see things in gray that adults often do not. By having the children’s choir singing that particular line, Lennon is making the point that war affects everybody, and not just the troops (and their families) who were fighting in Vietnam. If Lennon had sung “war is over, if you want it” the song wouldn’t be nearly as convincing. Cynics could easily raise their eyebrows at a famous rock star making flights of fancy about how to end the war. (Which, right or wrong, has always been a criticism of “Imagine”, particularly the line about imagining no possesions.)
This time of year is about coming together and forgetting life’s troubles. Lennon reversed that with “Happy Xmas”, and made us remember what was going on. But the idea of coming together for peace and love is very in the vein of the Holiday season, and in that sense, “Happy Xmas” might be the best representation of those themes.