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The Pogues enjoy a 'Christmas in New York.'

Getting and Spending

Topple the tchotchkes and give the gift of a few favorite songs this season

By Gina Arnold

CHRISTMAS IS supposed to be a time of great goodwill toward mankind in general. In the past in America, that sentiment has been loosely translated as a command to spend lots of money on presents--which, whatever the purists say, isn't really all that bad a philosophy. 'Tis better to give than to receive, it's the thought that counts and all that good-intentioned stuff no longer sound as dumb to me as they did when I was 10. But this year, people suddenly seem to be concerned with capitalism and what it means, and of course, nothing is more capitalistic than Christmas.

Sadly, I don't really see how spending less and giving less are going to alleviate any of our collective troubles, but I do think one could use this opportunity to give more judiciously. Around the holidays, I often think of a song my parents used to play: "A Christmas Carol," by Tom Lehrer. In the song, Lehrer (formerly a professor of mathematics at UC-Santa Cruz who once had an alter ego as a comedic songwriter) rails on Christmas traditions ironically: "On Christmas Day, you can't get sore/ Your fellow man you must adore/ There's time to rob him all the more/ The other three hundred and sixty-four ... Relations, sparing no expense'll / Send some useless old utensil / Or a matching pen and pencil / 'Just the thing I need! How nice!' "

Lehrer was one of my family's musical touchstones. This year, after digging up "A Christmas Carol" on the computer in an idle moment, the song's meaning came back to me in full force. Under its spell, I decided to stop giving people tchotchkes. I think there are too many things in the world, by which I mean items made of impermeable materials, and there's also too little space. Therefore, all my presents have to be disposable or biodegradable. That means plants, food, memberships, tickets, events or music.

OK, so music is pushing it, since it tends to come in something plastic and imperishable. But the idea is the same. Indeed, giving people CDs, gift certificates for CDs or homemade CD-burns or tape compilations is the best of all worlds, because they are useful, pleasant and appreciated--as well as laborious enough that the thought (and time) implied in giving it makes up for any cheapness. Of course, not everybody has a giant CD (and MP3) collection to draw from in order to make personalized tapes. And not everybody wants to be a DJ. For those who don't and aren't, here are some hints to help you get started.

Sites where music can be downloaded, now that Napster is no longer around, include Morpheus.com, Audiogalaxy.com, Limewire.com, Kazaa.com (Mac only) and Bearshare.com--among others. Obviously, everyone you make tapes for is different. Little kids might like the music of Raffi, anything by the Chipmunks (there's masses of it online), the children's songs of Woody Guthrie or a compilation of Beatles and Beach Boys songs. Teenagers tend to like the songs that their friends like, so go ahead and download them this week's Top 10 on the urban charts. (You can look that up at www.billboard.com.)

People over 30 tend to have already accumulated bigger record collections, making them harder to shop for. Here are some suggestions of songs that many people would like to have without actually owning the entire record. Some of them are Christmas-themed, some are jokey and some are just plain cheerful.

    1.) "A Christmas Carol" by Tom Lehrer
    2.) "Christmas in New York" by the Pogues
    3.) "The Theme From Casino Royale" by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
    4.) "La Dolce Vita" by Nino Rota
    5.) "Frank Mills," from Hair (In honor of George Harrison)
    6.) "I Don't Want to Grow Up" by the Ramones (in honor of Joey Ramone)
    7.) "Christmas Wrapping" by the Waitresses
    8.) "Father Xmas" by the Kinks
    9.) "Linus and Lucy" (the theme to the Peanuts specials) by Vince Guaraldi
    10.) "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong

Lest we forget, let's leave on that note: "I hear babies cryin', I watch them grow/ They'll learn much more than I'll ever know. ... And I think to myself, what a wonderful world/ Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world."

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From the December 20-26, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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