Two-thousand of anything is a pretty healthy number: dollars, pairs of mittens, shrunken heads.... But 2,000 Christmas albums is especially impressive. Who knew there were that many out there?
"People grow up with these albums—it's the soundtrack to their childhood Christmas," says Sean Passmore, referencing his mammoth, 24-year-old assemblage of holiday tunage— and counting. "People are always looking for them."
Whether a collector or not, Passmore would still be considered something of a recorded music expert. He worked at Sam the Record Man for 12 years, seven on Yonge Street in Toronto and five on Barrington as a manager. He's currently part-time and seasonal at CD Plus in Halifax Shopping Centre. Since his first Christmas away from home, in Toronto in 1983, the PEI-native has been accumulating his collection of aural cheer-—and his knowledge of Christmas music. When he asked his friends if they had Christmas albums, most only had one or two: "I ended up making this mix tape. It became a tradition where I'd make a new one and start looking for new stuff. I went nutty. One year I made 25 mixes for various people."
He says he doesn't listen to Christmas music all year, just when he's putting together mixes for friends from September to November. "I always hope my neighbors don't hear the tunes, thinking I may be a bit odd."
The challenge for Passmore was finding the weirdest stuff in every genre, and tailoring it for the tastes of the giftees. "I can make a Motown mix or an '80s hair metal mix, reggae, punk rock, hardcore; it just goes on and on."
In Passmore's modest Allan Street basement apartment, shared with two friendly cats, he has about 650 of his favourite Christmas CDs in boxes, as well as a few vinyl selections. The rest are stored at his parents'. He speaks with authority on recent releases, such as Hawksley Workman's Almost A Full Moon and this year's A New Kind of Light from Jill Barber, Rose Cousins and Meaghan Smith, as well as lost classics—although for some the term "classic" may have a dubious, ironic distinction.
"This was one of my Holy Grail Christmas records of all time," raves Passmore about Mojo Nixon's Horny Holidays. "It took me years to find that. It was out of print for so long." It includes "Trim Yo Tree," an old blues track not entirely free of sexual innuendo, as well as "Head-Crushing Yule Tide Singalong" and "Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto," which Passmore points out is a cover of a James Brown Christmas song. "There are a couple of really good collections that are still available for James Brown, but he put out something like eight or nine Christmas albums in the span of his career."
As the boxes are opened, the sheer number of seasonal discs, wave after wave, a Christmas music Yule tide—if you will—threatens to overwhelm this reporter. But Passmore's enthusiasm for his hobby is genuine and heartwarming. He proudly shows off Tinsel Tunes: More Holiday Treats from Sugar Hill, recordings of seasonal tracks with a bluegrass flavour, one of which he describes as a "redneck Christmas song" performed by Robert Earl Keen, called "Merry Christmas From the Family."
"Awesome," he says. "That is one of my all-time favourites."
Passmore has a Christmas album of American song poems, where a company would solicit poetry from the public in magazine advertisements and for a fee, put it to music. "They had their stable of studio musicians, but it's really weird," says Passmore. Titles include "Santa Came on a Nuclear Missile," and the title track, "Daddy, Is Santa Really 6 foot 4?"—a twisted ditty about a mother having an affair and covering for her indiscrete lover by telling the kids, "No, that's Santa."
There are plenty of the usual suspects to be found in his collection as well, such as Hank Snow, the Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton Once Upon A Christmas ("I love Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas.' RuPaul made a Christmas album and covers it," says Passmore), Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo's Deck The Halls and The Charlie Brown Christmas, which is the audio from the whole TV program on record.
Of the honest-to-goodness classics, the ones that don't need air-quotes when referred to, Passmore serves up the 1968 Stax Soul Christmas album, sporting an olive green cover strewn with chintz. The songs found on the album are the selections you'd expect, but from the masters of '60s soul: "White Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby" by Otis Redding and "Silver Bells," "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" by Booker T and the MGs. He admits that, although he loves all kinds of Christmas music, the weirder the better. The ones he listens to every year are these sentimental favourites: seasonal releases by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, The Ventures, Jim Reeves, The Four Aces, Mitch Miller and the Gang, Newfoundland folksinger Dick Nolan, Mario Lanza, Bruce Cockburn, Leon Redbone, Ringo Star and The Beatles—mostly a collection of skits and greetings. And Ernest Tubb. "I'm pretty sure that he was the first guy to ever do "Blue Christmas.' I'm all about getting the original of the song."
This year is a blue Christmas for fans of old-fashioned record shopping in Canada. With the final Canadian-owned music retailer Music World declaring bankruptcy, British-owned HMV is the final dedicated music retail chain in the country, and in its holiday flier, CDs come second to DVDs. Browsing the racks and finding the obscure Christmas album will now be an activity largely restricted to flea markets and used record stores.
"It's a pretty precarious business at this point," says Passmore. "Obviously you're not going to be able to compete with downloading and digital music, but I still think there's a way to do it. There are enough people out there who still want to talk to people about music and have something in their hands. It's just figuring out a way to do it that makes it viable."
Carsten Knox is the Special Issues Editor. His favourite seasonal song is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams.