If you’re a Sufjan Stevens fan – or if you’re even remotely familiar with him – you know just how much he loves Christmas. In fact, he released Christmas albums with all new content every year between 2001 and 2010. That is, of course, on top of eight studio albums, as well. He also has released two Christmas-themed compilation albums: Songs for Christmas in 2006, and Silver & Gold in 2012. During the winter of 2012, he did an exclusively Christmas-themed tour delicately titled “Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice.”
The dude loves everything that has to do with Christmas. And, it oddly makes sense with Sufjan’s eclectic soul. His music is so jam packed with spirituality and religious inclinations, but it also contains multitudes of over-accessorizing, which is essential to the image of Christmas. Being gaudy, glitter-filled, and over-the-top is equally as important as gospel choirs, family, and giving thanks. Sufjan embodies the ideals, vision, and overall spirit of Christmas throughout his 100+ Christmas songs. He cherishes all the ins-and-outs of the holiday, and no one can fault him for it.
Throughout his long-abiding affection with Christmas evokes some of his most heartfelt, interesting, and chaotic sounds yet. He beautifully covers and twists classic holiday songs like “Silent Night,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and, my personal favorite, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” However, he has also written a plethora of original Christmas tracks that deserve to be treated as their own classics. For this year, I have decided to present Sufjan’s ten best Christmas tracks to further the intertwined spirit of the Sufjan Christmas – which allows us indie kids to enjoy Christmas, too!
Barcarola (You Must be a Christmas Tree) was originally released in 2006 on Gloria!: Songs for Christmas, Vol. VI. It opens with a melancholy ukulele, light drums, a soft piano, and delicate harmonies. Although it tops seven minutes, the song stays relatively subdued, which is odd for Sufjan, who loves taking his songs through multi-layered terrains. The song is about a return home for the holidays, and having that moment of reflection and realization about what’s going on in your life. It’s that time when you get to rest and think about the year past – except this time turns out to be a blue Christmas. The self-deprecating lyrics are odd for a Christmas song, but beautifully capture a moment that many happy-go-lucky Christmas jingles steer clear of. “Don’t run away my friend, / you won’t be back again. / You said you needed me, / But I know that you needed yourself to be cleaned of me.” It’s a heartbreaking recognition and moment where you know you can no longer be with someone you care about.
Carol of Benjamin the Bearded One is a lighthearted take on the snowy world around him. It works, because Sufjan shows us the life that he sees even in the winter time. While most songs depict the snowy weather as “frightful” or “dreary,” Sufjan finds the spirit in it. Just as the Spring is a time of renewal, Sufjan sees the winter snow as a different type of change, an introspective one: “In my heart and in my spirit I can see, / the things you want in life you have to really need.” The song was included in 2006 on Gloria!: Songs for Christmas, Vol. VI
Christmas in the Room is a romantic Christmas song included on 2008’s Songs for Christmas Volume VIII: Astral Inter Planet Space Captain Christmas Infinity Voyage! On this song, Sufjan embodies the true spirit of Christmas – when it’s not Christmas time. He wants to bring the ideas of joy and fulfillment year round, not only once a year. Sufjan opens the track with “No travel plans, no shopping malls / No candy canes, no Santa Claus / For as the day of rest draws near / It’s just the two of us this year.” Sufjan wants to feel the happiness that is essential to Christmas to be essential at moments when we need it the most – when we feel alone.
Christmas Unicorn is the last song included in the final 2010 installment, Christmas Unicorn: Songs for Christmas, Vol. X. The song is a wonderful display of Sufjan at his wackiest and most spirited. It includes a wide arrange of instruments, both strings as well as electronics. Sufjan triumphantly sings, “I’m the Christmas unicorn! You’re the Christmas unicorn, too!” (And if you ever see this song live, you will see that he really is the Christmas unicorn. He loves his costume changes.) The twelve-minute, nothing short of epic, closer even drifts into a melody of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” by Joy Division. It’s a chaotic masterpiece held together by immense, and contagious spirit.
Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance! is Sufjan’s best imitation on a modern classic Christmas tune. It’s simplistic, cozy, and relatable. While remaining true to the classic Christmas traditions like “mistletoe,” “chestnuts,” “away in a manger,” and “Jesus and Mary,” Sufjan allows includes lyrics dedicated towards “K-mart,” “banjos strumming,” and the “Tower of Babel” to keep it truly a Sufjan-spirited Christmas classic. The song was included back in 2003 on Ding! Dong!: Songs for Christmas, Vol. III.
Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!) is one of Sufjan’s more depressing songs during the holiday season. It was included on Joy: Songs for Christmas, Vol. IV back in 2005. It works very similarly to “Barcarola (You Must be a Christmas Tree)” in the sense that it’s about leaving someone you love and hurting them, which hurts even more around the holiday season. It’s about feeling alone, even when surrounded by love, friends, and family: “I loved you along / but I can see it now / you always tell me how / I could do so much better / you said it in your letter.” It’s endearing as much as it is depressing, and Sufjan tackles tough moments, that happen even during the happiest time of the year.
Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time! is also off of 2005’s Joy: Songs for Christmas, Vol. IV, but it’s a completely different mood. The song is easily the noisiest and most “punk-rock” out of any of his Christmas songs. It’s not introspective, it’s not warm, it’s all about rocking out and having fun, just because! The song ends with smashing guitars, delays, and raw power all for Christmas. The song ends with Sufjan repeating “It’s Christmas time!” over and over again, because he realizes the true essence of being free and merry.
Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmasses Past is intricate, heartfelt, and familiar all at the same time. It’s beautifully layered, and doesn’t lose those true Sufjan oddities even though it’s focused on Christmas. It’s super cheery as it contains Santa’s classic “Ho, ho, ho’s,” and it doesn’t mind bordering on cheesy. It’s the weird, wired brain of Sufjan Stevens interpreting Christmas and picking up on the small things that we learn to cherish during the season. It was also included on 2006’s Gloria!: Songs for Christmas, Vol. VI
Sister Winter is most akin to Sufjan’s “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” off of the critically upheld Illinois. It’s devastating and deep. The gorgeous and deeply moving harmonies shed a dismal view on the chorus: “Now my heart is / returned to sister winter / Now my heart is / as cold as ice.” It’s about depression overcoming the holiday spirit and keeping you down, when you know you should be grateful and happy. It’s an upsetting take on a Christmas song, which only Sufjan could pull off so wonderfully. It was originally included in 2006 on Peace: Songs for Christmas, Vol. V.
That Was the Worst Christmas Ever! is Sufjan at his most humble and inspiring. He beautifully describes the quintessential moments that define Christmas, not as some rambunctious party, but as a warm moment at home. It’s incredibly soft and familiar. It embodies the essence of what it’s like to be at peace and with your family. The song was one of Sufjan’s first Christmas songs, as it was included in 2003 on Ding! Dong!: Songs for Christmas, Vol. III. It even ends with a sincere recontextualizing of “Silent Night,” as Sufjan despondently sings, “Silent night, holy night / Silent night, nothing feels right.”