CHRISTMAS is just too irresistible a time of year. Some of the happiest moments of my life always return to me when December draws near, such as the one when I played babysitter to my little cousin, Paxton. I was ten then, he was four. At one point in the afternoon when we had exhausted all the fun things we could do, and he had refused to take a nap, I ended up playing a random Christmas CD from my parents’ music collection. It was so ancient and foul with carols sung by young children who must have been taught that shouting the melody is the height of beautiful singing.
But who cares? We had a screaming good time, outshouting the children singers while romping about and bouncing on the bed. The carols seemed to have cast some kind of magic on us. Even though the recording was less than mediocre—Paxton couldn’t have known, but I did for sure—Christmas had kissed us in the face.
Even today, Christmas still kisses me in that same special way, even more so now that my ears have become more discerning. No more crap carols for me just because I’m all grown up now. The only real carols I listen to these days are those by the five famous a cappella singing stars, who go by the name of Pentatonix.
They have this one hit song called Can’t Sleep Love. Every time I listen to it, I marvel not only at the melody, but how loaded that adjective “can’t sleep” is. To listen to every single Pentatonix Christmas carol is to come close to that can’t sleep feeling. There’s an electrifying joy in their voices, and their gift for harmony is utterly spellbinding. How can a mere five voices produce such rich, dense, surround sounds? And then, there’s that awful contagion—they love their music and their craft so much that it gets into your skin and you just can’t shake it off.
If you should ever walk down Orchard Road close to sunset with those familiar a cappella voices playing out in the distance, don’t be surprised if you stop dead in your tracks, and go, “I know these voices, but what’s that song?” That was exactly what happened two weeks ago when all of town was newly decorated with Yuletide baubles and lights, and there I was standing right in front of Mandarin Gallery, soaking in the melody and that backbeat going pum pum pum PUM pa rum pa pum pum pum. Then, there was Kevin Olusola’s unmistakable beatboxing—the whispered plosives, the popping gutturals and that washboard puh-tch, like some magical vocal explosion.
I listened long and hard for a good three minutes before I went: “Oh, it’s the Little Drummer Boy!” Christmas was indeed in the air amid that drizzle-filled evening, and I couldn’t help wondering how I’ve never really cared for this song until I heard that version.
Pentatonix managed to capture the poignant drama of the poor boy who had no gift to bear, save for his humble drum beats. That’s their great gift: they can transport original tunes to new territories in harmony and arrangement. Almost all their Christmas carols are a joy to listen to, but the grandest treat of all is their one original Christmas song.
That song, That’s Christmas To Me, showcases such masterful songwriting. It opens with the fireplace burning bright and the presents underneath the good ol’ Christmas tree. Then, there’s Mommy and Daddy sharing a kiss under the mistletoe. The scenes get painted so intricately, layer upon layer, borrowing familiar elements from Yuletide songs elsewhere. There’s nothing new, but it soars with hope and great anticipation and it shines with a simplicity that warms the heart.
If I ever had a chance to visit Santa whose only wish was to have a song for a present, this tune would be my gift to him. And when my five a cappella stars hum that final verse, I too, would join in, singing the same Mitch Grassi mezzo-soprano part:
Oh, the joy that fills our hearts and makes us see
Oh, why, cause that’s Christmas to me.
I’ve got this Christmas song in my heart,
I’ve got the candles glowing in the dark,
And then, for years to come, we’ll always know one thing:
That’s the love that Christmas can bring
Oh, why, cause that’s Christmas to me.
Lim Zhi Yi, Secondary Three
For more essays by Zhi Yi, visit Zhi Yi Writes.