‘This Christmas’ or ‘Silent Night’?

Unapologetically ATL tries to find the ultimate holiday song

In all of my years, I have come to expect two things every holiday season:

Somebody is going to be playing Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.”

And somebody is going to be playing The Temptations’ “Silent Night.”

The two songs, one an original that debuted in 1970, the other, a 1980 cover of a 200-year-old hymn, have become holiday staples, firmly planted in the Black lexicon.

Last week, we at Unapologetically ATL asked you to help us decide which of these classics reigned as the iconic Christmas song, while also getting your thoughts on other tunes to help us create the “Unapologetic Music for the Holiday Season Playlist.

And what a gift it is.

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We give you a little “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt and “Merry Christmas Baby” by Otis Redding.

We spend Christmas in the “Ghetto,” “Harlem,” “New Orleans” and “Hollis.”

We have Christmas rap and Christmas jazz.

Mary J. Blige reminds us that some holidays are sad and Prince reminds us that some holidays are really sad.

And we include Mariah Carey to once again prove that she is pretty much unstoppable.

But we begin and end with the two classics – “This Christmas” and “Silent Night.”

And that was just fine with Robin Castle, a public relations guru and owner of the Castle Agency here in Atlanta.

She was only two-years-old when “This Christmas” was released as a single on Dec. 9, 1970. But living in a house full of music lovers and musicians, she still remembers the first time she heard it.

Credit: This Christmas

Credit: This Christmas

“Aside from it being a Christmas song, it is a modern soul song that has hung on,” Castle said. “The music never sounds old and it came from our tragic hero.”

Hathaway died in 1979 at the age of 33 from an apparent suicide.

“This Christmas” is even more remarkable, because Hathaway wrote it at the age of 25 in 1970 with the intention of it being a Black Christmas anthem. It worked, and he was able to elevate it into a modern Christmas standard.

“I believe he wrote this song for a lover, but it has become such a family-oriented classic,” Castle said. “Watch people when the song comes on. You see the emotions written on their faces. The song brings a sense of warmth and family togetherness. It is the quintessential Christmas soul song. It is timeless.”

“Fireside is blazing bright

We’re caroling through the night

And This Christmas will be

A very special Christmas, for me….”

In 2014, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers listed “This Christmas” as the 30th greatest holiday song of the 20th Century.

In 1980, Motown legends “The Temptations,” having already recorded a version of the Austrian hymn, composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, a decade earlier, again covered “Silent Night.”

But with soul.

The song opens with bass Melvin Franklin reciting parts of the poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas.”

But Kimberly Stewart-Lucas, an events coordinator with Absolutely Divine Events, said everyone knows that the song really opens with Dennis Edwards’ “In My Mind….,” taking the hymn out of the cathedral and placing it smack dab in the middle of the Black church.

“The beauty of being Black comes from taking something probably not created with us in mind, and soulfully and tastefully transforming that something to be ALL about us and enjoyable for others,” said Stewart-Lucas, who I used to run around within the city’s karaoke circuit when she was known as “Warrior Mama.”

“In my mind, I want you to be free…

For all of our friends, to listen to me…

Now hear what I say, we wish you…

A Merry Christmas to each one of you…”

Credit: Kimberly Stewart

Credit: Kimberly Stewart

“Whenever I hear ‘In my mind...’ the spirit of the Christmas season is ushered in,” Stewart-Lucas said. “It gives you the feeling of family and Grandma cooking at the stove and my sister and I shaking gifts, curious about what we have under the tree. Silent Night is the Blackest Christmas song ever. And that’s on Otis!”

In full transparency, we picked “This Christmas” and “Silent Night,” because of their historical connections to Black culture and the fact that they are instantly recognizable.

But that is not to say that people didn’t have strong opinions.

Personally, my favorite Christmas song is Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.”

Released in 1967 in the middle of the Vietnam War, Wonder doesn’t make it easy for us and as always, challenges us to look at the bigger picture - even during Christmas.

“Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars

When we have learned what Christmas is for

When we have found what life’s really worth

There’ll be peace on earth”

And there is obviously the case for Carey’s 1994 “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

That is why Ashley Alese Edwards, a New York-based partnerships manager at the Google News Lab, called me to argue Carey’s case. What else would you expect from someone whose Twitter bio reads: “If you don’t like Mariah Carey we can’t be friends.”

“People need to put some respect on her name,” is the first thing that comes out of her mouth.

She has a point.

As you read this, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is sitting comfortably atop the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart. This is the third time it has topped the charts, following runs in 2019 and 2020.

Earlier this month, Carey received the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) Diamond Award for earning more than 10 million sales and streams. It can be reasonably assumed that “All I Want for Christmas Is You” will top the charts every Christmas for the foreseeable future.

“So many people kind of undervalue Mariah’s talent as not just a singer, but as a songwriter. People assume it is a cover, but she wrote this song,” Edwards said. “There is something about it that is catchy and cute. It is about love and it is not depressing. And it feels timeless and will never be dated. The song is pure magic.”

Credit: Ashley Alese Edwards

Credit: Ashley Alese Edwards

But in the end, it was all about “This Christmas.”

And it really wasn’t even a contest. Across polls that we ran in the Unapologetically ATL newsletter and on Twitter, Hathaway’s classic won 60% of the vote.

The result took me back 24 years to Dec. 20, 1997.

I was a groomsman at the wedding of my fraternity brother, Ron Brinson, who was marrying Kobi Kennedy, a hot-shot attorney and recent graduate of Harvard Law School.

Their wedding song - five days before Christmas - was “This Christmas.”

Credit: Kobi Kennedy-Brinson

Credit: Kobi Kennedy-Brinson

Kobi Kennedy Brinson, now a partner at Winston & Strawn LLP, told me the reason that she picked it as her wedding song, was “the song itself.”

“If you break down the lyrics, it’s basically saying, ‘I’ll love you for the rest of my life,’ in the context of Christmas,” she told me Monday as she and Ron prepared to celebrate their anniversary.

She pointed out several lines in the song:

“I’m gonna get to know you better.”

“We’re caroling through the night.”

“This Christmas will be a very special Christmas for me.”

“Presents and cards are here, my world is filled with cheer and you.”

“These lines are Black love genius,” she said. “I mean, it’s the perfect Black love song.”

Editor’s Note: The team at Unapologetically ATL would like to wish everyone a happy and safe holiday. We are going to take a little break to observe the season with our families, so we will not publish next week. However, we will be returning on Jan. 6.