Christmas in Paradise

Songsmith Mary Gauthier

I don’t normally do Christmas songs, having sung one too many carols as a youngster. I see them as decorative and unifying, but in the background. Yet it is Christmas again, and they’re back . You may have a favourite, or not at all. It depends how closely your musical ear is tuned to the English-speaking money machine of Yuletide1 ditties.

What is it that draws attention to Christmas songs? Is it the religious narrative? Is it the namechecks on reindeers2, tinsel3, mistletoe4 and so on? Is it because they remind you how much shopping you still have to do? Or simply because you like Christmas, and songs about it make you feel good?

In this second piece in the Songsmiths series which I started last month, I’d like to share a song by Mary Gauthier (pronounced go-shay, s’il vous plaît). Her Christmas in Paradise came to me as one of 12 songs by various artists on the free CD compliments of Les Inrockuptibles, the French music mag, in April 2002.

The track comes from her third album Filth and Fire and, more than 20 years on, I still find it coming up on my inner jukebox. What is it that makes this song stick? All I can do is tell you how it sounds to me the best way I can. Here goes.

On first hearing, Christmas in Paradise is a simple alt-country song. The lyrics form a first-person narrative, which is fairly typical in country music, except that the narrator is giving her homeless person’s perspective on the festive season. The music is carefully woven into the words, with changes of type and number of instruments which change the aural space as the story moves forward.

The first verse, with an acoustic guitar and a single voice, sets the scene and introduces the main characters, who are the singer and Davey. The opening line, which is somewhere between a wisecrack and a confession, immediately grabs your attention :

VERSE 1

Davey stole a Christmas tree from K-Mart last night

Red ribbons and silver bells, angels dressed in white

He tied it to the bridge rail for passing cars to see

He did a little dance up there, he looked down and smiled at me

This is no ordinary Christmas song. You don’t steal Christmas trees from stores. You buy them. It’s part of a social ritual. This first verse sits the singer and Davey outside of social rituals. The tree, probably part of the store’s window dressing, was already decorated – just listen to the way she sings the word angels in the phrase angels dressed in white.

A bass guitar is added to the single voice and guitar for the second verse and chorus, steadying the rhythm and and enriching the harmonics, while we are given a closer look at the characters’ lives.

VERSE 2

My bed is a lawn chair, cushions keep it soft

I sleep in the open air, under the Southern Cross

Next to the golf course by the Hyatt Hotel

Davey he is a friend of mine and we get along pretty well

They sleep out under the stars, and the mention of the constellation of the Southern Cross tells us we are in Southern Florida looking south. The singer herself sleeps on a folding lawn chair with cushions to make it comfortable. Maybe not as comfortable as the Hyatt Hotel nearby but, the chorus tells us, it still feels like paradise. At the Homeless Hotel, under the Cow Key Bridge, a warm breeze blows, and the tenants’ presence is tolerated by the authorities – the landlord forgives.

CHORUS

Christmas in paradise under the Cow Key Bridge

Where the warm breeze blows so nice

And the landlord forgives

Welcome to Key West Florida, the southern most city in the USA, population 26,444 in the 2020 census. It is trememendously popular with the droves of monied retirees, known as Snowbirds, who flock regularly to a part of the world famous for its equable climate between November and March. And of course, once those folks get nicely settled in, it may be Christmas, but winter chills are just a memory.

By the time we reach the third verse, we realize there are haves and have-nots living side by side. And the have-nots are in control of the narrative in the song. In comes a wry fiddle as we zoom in on those Snowbirds, with their odd clothes and their ability and occasional inability to play golf, who unwittingly provide free entertainment for those with eyes to see.

VERSE 3

Snowbirds on the golf course wear bermuda shorts and polo shirts

Some play pretty good, some play so bad it hurts

We pick up their golf balls that fly over the fence

We shine ’em up a little bit and sell ’em back for fifty cents

The idea that the stray golfballs give the singer and Davey a small source of income when it comes to returning these for small change is a sweet one. Just remember that the song originally came out in 2002. In cashless 2023, do Snowbirds still carry the means to buy back their golf balls? Has this improved their golf?

A second voice is added for the second chorus and, after the description of this slightly comic scene, it’s like Davey is singing along. Their voices are those of two Mockingbirds poking a little fun at the Snowbirds. Mary Gauthier has definitely invited us to join her on the side of the Mockingbirds.

After this, the texture of the music shifts briefly with a short instrumental break. There are new sounds : a lap steel guitar, which is totally appropriate for the country genre, plus the less expected steel drums,5 which could be the nearby Caribbean nudging its way in. This short musical interlude reminds us that we are far from the gently falling northern snow of White Christmas normally required for a Christmas song. Mary Gauthier then takes us seamlessly back to the previous instrumentation of acoustic guitar plus bass, with the country fiddle, now double-tracked, for what will be the final verse.

VERSE 4

I won’t lie, we just get by, but we’ll be eating good tonight

Christmas dinner at 5 o’clock over at the Church of Light

They don’t care who you are, they don’t ask what you done

Come on down and bring a friend there’s plenty here for everyone

Here, the story is less sardonic, and we glimpse the homeless characters’ daily struggle as the singer tells us : I won’t lie, we just get by. The free Christmas dinner at the Church of Light, open to all, comes as a welcome change from the ID checks (They don’t care who you are) and the need to negotiate with the authorities in order to get something (they don’t ask what you done). The second voice returning to sing harmony for the chorus confirms the comradery of the meal as a shared celebration of the Christmas spirit.

There is no following verse to the song after this, even though it’s not quite the end. In fact, we close with what sounds like a post-script. The steel drum sneaks back with a little burst from Jingle Bells, recalling the piano line at the beginning and end of Joni Mitchell’s song River, also a Christmas tune. 6

POST SCRIPT

The radio plays Christmas songs while we get high

And Davey shouts, “Merry Christmas y’all”

To the cars passing by

Davey shouts, “Merry Christmas y’all”

To the cars passing by

The lyrics of this unexpected final suspension of the story redraw the social line in the sand between the world of radio playing Christmas songs, and the world where the singer and Davey get subversively out of their heads. Christmas songs are not generally intended to encourage substance abuse but, if the listener has been following, then by this point s/he is on the side of the subversive.

Davey’s Merry Christmas y’all rings out enthusiastically, but the cars just keep passing by. The singer and Davey are on their own again. And the fact that this final post-script is neither verse nor chorus leaves you with the song still in your head at the end. All those cars just keep passing by, and the world keeps turning.

Final word

I have tried to say something about why this song has lasting appeal for me. I knew the lyrics were a key thing for me, but writing this has revealed how much the instruments and the arrangement contribute to the listener’s perception of the song. I hadn’t grasped this until now.

K-Mart, the store Davey stole the Christmas tree from, actually went bankrupt in 2002. Makes you think, doesn’t it? K-Mart bounced back like a shiny golfball which momentarily slipped off the green. I wonder how Davey’s doing?

Mary Gauthier was 40 years old when she recorded Christmas in Paradise. You get a sense that she really knew what she was singing about with that lived-in voice over the beautiful architecture of the arrangement.

If you would like to know more, take a look at her life story. She still gives concerts and does radio broadcasts, has written a book about songcraft called Saved by a Song and also runs songwriting workshops, sharing her gift so others can share their stories.

That just about winds up this second post in the series on Songsmiths. I hope you liked it. There’ll be more coming in January. Currently looking at something by The Pretenders.

Merry Christmas y’all!

Still want more?

Interview with Mary Gauthier on the songwriting process which is all about how, when and where she writes songs.

Mary Gauthier’s YouTube show called Sundays with Mary – she is a real character!

Notes

  1. Yule was name for the northern celebration of the winter solstice and the return of the light after the shortening of the days. This was taken over by the Christian feast of Christmas. And every Ikea shopper knows that God Jul means Good Christmas. ↩︎
  2. Reindeer became an official Christmas symbol with the poem A visit from St Nicholas published in 1823. The first line ‘Twas the night before Christmas would ultimately been given a new twist in Tim Burton’s 1993 animation The Nightmare Before Christmas. ↩︎
  3. Originally a 15th c. French cloth woven with gold or silver thread called estincelle, the modern sense of tinsel came from a German invention in the 1600s of a decoration to reflect candlelight. ↩︎
  4. Mistletoe is for kissing under at Christmas, especially in England. Refusing to kiss someone underneath the mistletoe is said to bring bad luck. ↩︎
  5. Credits found on allmusic.com ↩︎
  6. Maybe this is Mary Gauthier giving a nod to a sister song, or even to a song sister. ↩︎

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2 Comments

  1. Wolfgang

    Lovely song, beautifully sung, simple harmony and melody at the service of the story. Listened to the interview with Mary Goshay (sic), very interesting and entertaining. He didn’t ask her about the music aspect of songwriting, but I think she would have said “keep it simple, don’t let the music get in the way”. As she says herself, you have to have something to say, you have to believe in what you’re saying. The story/message comes first.
    An aside from an Australian used to seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky all year round : I was surprised that an American could see this constellation at all, so I checked. Southern Florida (Key West) is at latitude 25°N. The two stars at the extremities of the long diameter of the Southern Cross are at declinations of 57°S and 63°S. So at its highest, before dawn in December/January, the cross is only just above the horizon (the bottom star just 2° over the horizon), but in practice only visible if the view to the horizon is clear and uninterrupted, like on a flat plain or near the sea. So when Mary sings “I sleep in the open air, under the Southern Cross”, this is poetic licence 🙂
    The interview with Mary is worth listening to, she has had a long songwriting career and knows what she is talking about, very direct and honest.

  2. Gerry Kenny

    Thanks Wolf for the scientific clarifications concerning the Southern Cross. Perhaps the characters looked up after getting “high”, as mentioned at the end of the song, and only thought they saw the Southern Cross? All I can be sure of is the general location where the story is set. Basically, the line “Christmas in Paradise under the Cow Key Bridge” is one which has been resurfacing in my audio memory for years now. When starting to write this post I did a search on Cow Key Bridge which turned out to be in the Cow Key Channel between Stock Island and Key West in Florida. There is also a Hyatt Hotel nearby with an adjoining golf course as the song says. The problem of the Southern Cross was slightly trickier. The website for the Southernmost Point Buoy which is in Florida informs us that the constellation is visible from there. Kind of : “You must be in southern Florida if you’re in the contiguous United States. You have a constrained viewing window to see the Southern Cross, even from the extreme southern contiguous U.S. It must be the appropriate time of year and season. The correct time of night is required. And the proper direction to gaze is south.” The lengths we go to in order to fathom all the things a great song could possibly be about!

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