There are at least two truisms coming out of African-American homes every holiday season.
Somebody is going to be playing Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.”
And somebody is going to be playing The Temptations’, “Silent Night.”
The two songs, one an original that debuted in 1970, the other, a 1980 cover of a 200-year-old hymn, have become holiday staples, firmly planted in the black lexicon.
“In my opinion, the Christmas season doesn’t officially begin until I hear both songs,” said Todd Cooper. “Both songs take me back to days gone by.”
Well, at AJC Sepia, it is officially Christmas season.
After celebrating African-American Music Appreciation Month, showing you how to get down at a Family Reunion, and giving you a taste of Blue-eyed Soul, we are dropping our “AJC Sepia Holiday Music Spotify Playlist,” just in time for the holidays.
And what a gift it is.
We give you a little “Santa Baby,” by Eartha Kitt and “Merry Christmas Baby” by Otis Redding.
We spend Christmas in the “Ghetto,” “Harlem,” “New Orleans” and “Hollis.”
We have Christmas rap and Christmas jazz.
Mary J. Blige reminds us that some holidays are sad and Prince reminds us that some holidays are really sad.
But we begin and end with the two classics – “This Christmas” and “Silent Night.”
Atlanta resident Jacqueline Wills, said while “This Christmas,” isn’t her favorite Christmas song, it is definitive because it “makes you think of black family gatherings around the holidays, like "Summertime" makes you think of black cookouts.
"We are superb at putting a new spin on old things like "Silent Night," but I think “This Christmas” is a stand-out because it is very difficult to come up with something new that becomes a modern standard,” Wills said. “And it became ‘ours.’ Sort of like how Stevie Wonder's ode to Martin Luther King Jr. became our default way to sing happy birthday to someone.”
“This Christmas,” is even more remarkable, because Hathaway wrote it in 1970 with the intention of it being a black Christmas anthem. It worked, and he was able to elevate it into a modern Christmas standard.
“Fireside is blazing bright
We’re caroling through the night
And This Christmas will be
A very special Christmas, for me….”
In 2014, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers listed “This Christmas,” as the 30th greatest holiday song of the 20th Century.
In 1980, Motown legends “The Temptations,” having already recorded a version a decade earlier, again covered “Silent Night,” a 200-year-old European hymn.
But with soul.
The song opens with bass Melvin Franklin reciting “T’was the Night Before Christmas."
But everyone knows that it really opens with Dennis Edwards’ “In My Mind….,” taking the hymn out of the cathedral and placing it smack dab in the middle of the black church.
“In my mind, I want you to be free…
For all of our friends, to listen to me…
Now hear what I say, we wish you…
A Merry Christmas to each one of you…”
Cooper, who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md. said the song takes him back to his childhood in Southeast, D.C. and being raised by a single mother who, “really made an effort to make Christmas special and memorable.”
”Every year, without fail, it was a family tradition to put up the Christmas tree on my birthday, Dec. 13, and “Silent Night” was that one song that always stood out,” Cooper said. “Although I was too young to really understand the true meaning of the words, the soulfulness just resonated with me. Our little two bedroom apartment was filled with singing, laughter, and immaculate decorations. Those days were some of my most fondest as a child and every time I hear “Silent Night” it brings back the nostalgia of that time. A good ghetto Christmas.”