In the No-Girl's-Land Between Menorah and Mariah

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By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

It isn't December until Mariah Carey puts on her bright red knit hat, zips up her white boots and kicks around in the fakest-looking snow ever with Santa Claus.

Is the scene familiar? It's from Mariah's music video for her 1994 holiday hit, "All I Want for Christmas Is You," the best Christmas song ever. Lots of people apparently share my love of this song: It was the 21st most-downloaded song on iTunes last weekend. Pretty impressive for a 13-year-old pop tune.

I first heard it while sitting in the basement of my Portland, Ore., home, watching MTV with my younger sister Heather. I was 12.

It starts with dramatic piano music, tinged with the sound of festive bells. Mariah drags out each syllable for maximum theatrics. "I don't want a lot for Christmas/There is just one thing I need."

About 50 seconds in, the chorus peps up. The piano goes nuts; a gospel choir claps and harmonizes with Mariah. My little preteen heart couldn't soak in all the joy emanating from the television screen, so Heather and I danced. We jumped around the basement, twisting our hips and squealing with delight. We tried and failed to hit Mariah's glass-shattering last note. "All I want for Christmas is YOU!"

But that's not what happened the very first time I heard the song. I didn't like it. Rather, I didn't let myself like it. I'm a Jewish girl, and Jewish girls aren't supposed to listen to or enjoy Christmas music. I probably even changed the channel.

There aren't a whole lot of Jews in Portland. Enough so that I didn't feel like a total freak, but not enough so that kids wouldn't come up to me on the playground and ask why my people killed Jesus. I don't know what I resented more: being forced to sing Christmas carols for the school choir or singing the token Hanukkah songs. Even in elementary school, I could tell they were just putting those in the recital to be politically correct.

During the winter of '94, I was even more protective -- defensive, really -- of my faith. I was clocking serious hours at the synagogue in preparation for my bat mitzvah. Learning to read Hebrew and chant my Torah portion intensified my commitment to Judaism.

That same year, my mom suggested we put a string of blue and white lights on the roof. I threw a fit, saying we were not Christian and shouldn't do that. Nobody else in my family thought it was a big deal. We compromised and strung up white lights (I guess having colored bulbs upset me, among other things).

Even though I originally turned off the forbidden Mariah Carey song, it was winter break, and Heather and I were spending an extraordinary amount of time in front of MTV. We wound up watching the video for "All I Want for Christmas Is You" at least twice a day. Yes, Virginia, MTV used to play music videos.

Heather, then 10, didn't share my religious zealotry. She did, however, think it unspeakably nerdy to be a Mariah Carey fan (she and her friends called her "Mariah Scary"), so "All I Want for Christmas Is You" was taboo for her, too.

Still, after a few days of Mariah immersion, the song sucked us into its irresistible fairy tale world, where love trumps material possessions. A place where we plead, "Santa won't you bring me the one I really need?/Won't you please bring my baby to me?"

We started getting excited to hear those slow, opening bars of piano and Mariah's elastic vocals, humming and tapping our hands on our laps with the beat. (The dancing started shortly thereafter.)

In the video, Mariah goes sledding, flirts with Santa and plays with a puppy under a Christmas tree in front of a roaring fire. "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is pure, distilled holiday music joy, like a shot of eggnog sipped under the mistletoe (or what I imagined that it was like -- I'd never tasted the stuff). Without knowing it, Ms. Scary had struck a blow for ecumenical harmony, helped heal a millennia-old rift in Judeo-Christian history. They should have blasted the song over the loudspeakers at the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis.

It is also one of the only new, original holiday songs to become a perennial hit (though in the Christmas music catalogue, 13 years is nothing: "Jingle Bells" was written in the 1850s). Most everything else is either an old song or a remake of one.

"All I Want for Christmas" holds up all year. I'll listen to it in March or August or whenever I need a little mood boost. Next May, I plan to play it at my wedding reception.

Today, Heather and I live 3,000 miles apart, but we exchange ecstatic text messages: "OMG, M.C. all i want 4 xmas is on!"

Then I proceed to dance around my apartment, twist my hips and squeal with delight. Happy Hanukkah.


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