The Holiday Brilliance of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas”
By Emily Lordi, Dec 19, 2017, 1:28 p.m.
If Donny Hathaway had lived to see “This Christmas” enshrined as the black Christmas anthem—a standard recorded by singers from Aretha Franklin to Usher—he likely would have been pleased, but not surprised. The Chicago-born prodigy, who synthesized gospel, blues, jazz, and classical idioms to create some of the most stunning soul music of his generation, had every intention of making a Christmas classic. While other black artists had recorded memorable versions of Christmas carols (Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” Otis Redding’s “White Christmas”), Hathaway’s anthem would be a black-authored, “for us, by us” production—a celebration not just of a season but of a people, and of a particularly Chicagoan brand of black striving and excellence.
“This Christmas,” recorded in 1970, didn’t start with Hathaway but with a songwriting receptionist named Nadine McKinnor. She is now seventy-six and a full-time caregiver; I spoke with her about the origins of the song. Her friend Ron Pulliam, whose family ran an interior-design company (“It was a good time for black business,” she said), was decorating both Hathaway’s home and his office, Studio 77. McKinnor was working as a dispatcher at I.B.M. and was constantly “singing songs in the air—little strange melodies and words and hooks and phrases.” She told me that one day Ron said to her, “ ‘You need to sing these songs to Donny Hathaway.’ I said, ‘Who’s Donny Hathaway?’ He said, ‘He’s got ‘The Ghetto’ on the radio.’ I said, ‘Ohhh-kay.’ So I listened to the radio and I heard him. Ron took me to his office and I sang him maybe five songs out of a spiral notebook.” It was “This Christmas” that caught Hathaway’s ear. “I tore the page out to give him, and I never got it back,” McKinnor said.
By then, Hathaway had signed with Atlantic Records, in New York, which would produce his self-titled album the following year. But he recorded “This Christmas” at Universal Recording, on the North Side of Chicago, close to home. McKinnor said, “The only time I heard him do it live was in the studio. He was telling the strings what to do. It was a very simple situation. It was not complicated. It was just very, very cool.” McKinnor had conceived the song in the style of Nat King Cole’s recording of “The Christmas Song,” but when she heard Hathaway’s final mix she realized that he had transformed her version. “He had done everything: arranged and produced and performed and put the magic in it,” she said. “I believe he was so gifted that he heard around the corner, into today and tomorrow.”
A pickup on the drums kick-starts the song like a parade, thick with vintage brass and syncopated sleigh bells, before an organ lights the way to the first lines: “Hang all the mistletoe, I wanna get to know you better.” McKinnor drew the phrase from one of her nascent love songs, its quickstep rhythm her “answer” to Cole’s conversational opening: “Everybody knows some turkey and some mistletoe . . . ” When Hathaway sings the line, moving it down to the sweet spot of his baritone, he turns the song’s funkified “Nutcracker” vibe toward sensual R. & B. The song, like an intricate snow globe, suspends several musical elements in a dreamy display of Hathaway’s gifts—at its center is a barrelhouse acoustic piano solo christened by elegant strings. “It’s gospel, it’s country, it’s blues. It’s everything good, in a Christmas stew. Donny’s Christmas stew,” McKinnor said. “But my favorite part is that thumping bass drum. That’s not reindeer! That’s not even reindeer with boots on. Your roof is gonna cave in with those up there. That’s African drumming, is what that is.”
A feat of musical syncretism, “This Christmas” blends the spirit of belief with that of worldly ambition. “We wanted to make a song that would become a standard,” the producer Ric Powell has said. No less aspirational than “The Christmas Song” or “White Christmas,” but far more upbeat than either, “This Christmas” predicts a future of what McKinnor calls “blessed fun”:
The fireside is blazing bright We’re carolling through the night And this Christmas will be A very special Christmas for me, yeah!
The expectation that this Christmas will be special not “for us” but “for me” might seem odd in light of the song’s romantic aspirations. But that individual perspective also frees “This Christmas” from the compulsory good cheer of, say, “Deck the Halls,” and other future-oriented songs that cast their wishes or demands in the imperative—Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” The song’s hope is both modest and immaterial, McKinnor told me. “There’s no Santa, no Jesus, no turkey, no snow. There’s more mention of light than any of that.” The fire blazes, the lover’s eyes “outshine the town, they do.”
While there’s also no mention of the past (such as the credit earned from good behavior in “Santa Baby,” or the nostalgia of “White Christmas”), the song’s emphasis on this Christmas does hint that other Christmases might not have been so great. That lyrical turn is what makes “This Christmas” a quintessential striver’s anthem. An underdog spirit rings through the title phrase, where the stress on all three syllables denotes a “this is my year” kind of tenacity and the rhyme of “this” with “Chris” shows how everything might click into place.
In this way especially, “This Christmas” is a song of black Chicago, the perennially underrated center of black industry and style that launched Ebony, Jet, Black World, “Soul Train,” and Afro Sheen into millions of homes in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Chicago was also, of course, a site of rage and despair, its short-lived chapter of the Black Panther Party crippled by the police murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December, 1969. “This Christmas” was, in a way, Hathaway and McKinnor’s tribute and gift to the city. The song’s hard-won joy radiates so that what begins with a lover’s kiss under the mistletoe extends to widespread fellowship by the end: “Shake a hand, shake a hand—wish your brother a Merry Christmas, all over the land.”
In more personal terms, the song offers a bright foil to Hathaway’s image as a tortured artist; listening to it, one almost forgets he would be gone within the decade, dead from an apparent suicide, induced by paranoid schizophrenia, at age thirty-three. His own transience highlights the song’s now-or-never conviction: this Christmas will likely be great, but the last one probably wasn’t, and the next one might not be, either. That’s not a new idea, but the song reminds us that present pleasure is sweet because it is fleeting.
These days, McKinnor said, “People learn I wrote (the song), with praise coupled with disbelief. They think, It’s gotta be by someone who’s dead. Who co-writes songs with dead people—and Christmas songs, especially? . . . But it’s still a big thrill to hear it. And I am eternally grateful because (Donny) gave it life—he gave it eternal life. Because people are still singing it in schools, in churches, in different languages. It keeps going and going. There’s a lot of Energizer Bunny in it.”
That ongoingness was built into the very structure of the song, which fades out and back in as it draws to a close. “It’s not supposed to just end—it’s supposed to fade in, fade out, fade in,” McKinnor said. “Donny wanted to give you that lingering love and that energy. It’s like he’s still having a great celebration. Or like he’s walking away, but there’s a lingering light . . . It’s like when you’re talking to somebody and you don’t want to say goodbye: ‘Bye, see you soon, call me when you get there . . . ’ He didn’t want it to end. And maybe that’s where the sing-along comes in, with so many people performing it. Maybe they’re picking up where he leaves off.”
8. "love this post, thanks for sharing it" In response to Reply # 0
love hearing the background details. thanks!
i SO want a full length documentary on Donny, focused on his creativity and creative process, with interviews of fellow musicians & people like ms McKinnor who were there with Donny, who were there involved, witnessing, inspiring or inspired...
December 9, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Donny Hathaway's holiday anthem "This Christmas." Get into the spirit with Donny's first ever official music video, an animated special drawn by famed cartoonist Lonnie Milsap. Listen to This Christmas and other holiday favorites here: https://lnk.to/DH-ThisChristmas
Video "premieres" on YouTube Fri, Dec 4, 3pm ET (US).