Welcome to the third year of trekking through the wild world of holiday songs with me! Finding the gems is hard, because there are so many songs! Most are fine enough to do what they were intended to do, usually just selling records or serving as background noise at holiday gatherings. A few are true works of art, and of those, a mere handful are genuine stunners.
Above them all sits Patti Labelle’s “This Christmas” at the 1996 National Tree Lighting Ceremony, which was broadcast on C-SPAN at the time and makes the YouTube and social media rounds every December.
This one goes off the rails from the very first moment: Patti Labelle gets cued to go out onstage before her introduction. She gasps, realizing she’s made her entrance too soon, and retreats, only to come back out when the introduction as actually done.
But as she settles in front of the mic to put some life into the ceremony, things get even weirder. For some reason she isn’t getting the cue cards she needs for the lyrics (and, later, to introduce a soloist). She’s expecting background singers that come out late (maybe to balance her coming out too early?) The band carries on as if everything is proceeding as planned, so Patti Labelle just sings. She ad-libs lyrics. She whoops. She calls for her background singers. Occasionally she mutters “oh my god,” knowing full well that this was not how the performance was supposed to go. But she’s a pro, and a pro knows the show must go on, so she gives it what she’s got. And no surprise, even without cue cards or background singers, Patti Labelle’s got a lot.
Call it a trainwreck, call it a real life moment straight out of a sitcom, call it a teachable moment for event planners, whatever you like. But think about this: we have lived through almost two years in which we’ve been waking up almost afraid to know what weird-ass thing will be coming our way. And the only way anyone’s been able to get through it is to be like Patti Labelle at the tree lighting thing, to try to get the train back on the tracks, to hope for background singers to show up and help out, but above all, to take what you’ve got, even if it’s not enough, and put on a great show anyway.
Here’s to everyone who has been ad-libbing their way through 2021. “This Christmas” is for you.