Composed in the style of scripture, the Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” — Robbie Robertson’s ambitious Yuletide gift to his new son Sebastian during the sessions for Northern Lights-Southern Cross — never became the seasonal favorite it should have been. Tucked away inside the 1977 odds-and-ends package Islands, the song remains a too-often-neglected gem. It’s not corny, boozy or jokey enough, I suppose.
In its way, however, “Christmas Must Be Tonight” represents a canny distillation of what has made the Band such an enduring presence, from Garth Hudson’s spectral colorings, to its spacious cadence, to Robertson’s lyric — offered from the perspective of a shepherd in that holy moment. “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” and maybe this doomed it from the start, would take on the same kind of emotionally direct underpinning that lifted moments like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Acadian Driftwood.”
Robbie Robertson made another attempt, a decade later, to right the wrong of this song’s relative anonymity, re-recording “Christmas Must Be Tonight” for the soundtrack of 1988’s Scrooged. His solo update also appeared on 1995’s Winter, Fire and Snow: Songs for the Holiday Season, though the absence of the rest of the Band — not to mention a sped-up, more mechanized production in the style of the day — tended to distract from the original narrative’s delicate beauty. Vocalist Rick Danko also subsequently returned to “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” in particular during December solo gigs, but his takes tended to be either simply too raucous or a little too precious.
Ultimately, the Band’s initial version — an obvious highlight on the uneven Islands — remains definitive. Danko’s lead there, as forthright as it is folksy, imbues the song with this humble honesty, while Levon Helm’s second vocal underscores the every-day nature of the narrator’s role as history unfolds.
Along the way, “Christmas Must Be Tonight” — just as earlier triumphs from the Band like “Drove Old Dixie” had — tends to bring out personal, rather than general, revelations. The latter, after all, isn’t simply a Civil War song, but also a meditation on lost causes and the sense of duty rooted in home and hearth. Same with “Christmas Must Be Tonight” which, if approached secularly, can also speak larger truths about the promise of birth, that moment when a new world begins inside a child’s eyes.
Perhaps, in the end, it was sunk by that very complexity, by aspiring to more than the tinny simplicity of most holiday radio playlists could comfortably accommodate. Whatever the reasons for its fate, the Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” is more than the sum of its seasonal parts. Instead, it belongs in the conversation with some of the Band’s very best work.
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