Songwriters Allison Russell, Charo, Chris Ballew, and More Share Musical Christmastime Traditions

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Ever wonder what some of your favorite musicians’ holiday traditions are?

Us, too!

That’s why we reached out to a number of those amazing, heartfelt songwriters we adore to get a little window into how they celebrate the holidays. Whether it be caroling around the fireplace or baking cookies for the family, we wanted to see what folks like Allison Russell, Charo, Big Freedia, and Chris Ballew might do around the 25th of December.

So, without further ado, let’s look get some musical holiday stories!

1. Allison Russell

“In Nashville, we have a wonderful friend Joe Pisapia, who every year he and his wife have this fabulous caroling party at his studio and he records the whole thing. It is such a joyful fun time. Of course, he couldn’t do it last year because of the pandemic. But I think we’re going to try and do it this year—everyone is vaccinated in our circle, so I think we’re going to try to do a reduced version of it. But I love it—I actually love singing Christmas carols with friends!

“My partner’s family, the Lindsay’s, they just go all out. JT’s brother plays the piano and we gather around and we sing carols. We always make a mulled wine and have the wonderful aromas of cinnamon and nutmeg wafting throughout the house. Every Christmas Eve either [my husband] JT or his dad reads The Night Before Christmas to [our daughter] Ida and her cousins. There’s more and more cousins because JT’s little sister just had a baby!”

2. Chris Ballew (Presidents of the United States of America)

“I grew up in a religious household. Although I have not continued to be traditionally spiritual I am spiritual in part because of that upbringing. My parents didn’t play a lot of music in the house in general but on Christmas Eve and during Christmas Day my Mom used to put on a collection of Gregorian chants.

“I didn’t think of the music as somber or heavy. I found it to be ethereal and beautiful. When my mom passed away I found those records in her belongings and now when I have my own mellow moments on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day I put the same records on and feel transported and connected to my Mom and my family and all those innocent Christmas times gone by.”

3. Charo

“Christmas for me is a time of love and happiness. I follow the traditions of my family in Murcia, Spain. We sing Villancios, which are songs of the people and are hundreds of years old. This is a line of lyrics from the most popular Villancio:

In English:
In the portal of Bethlehem, there’s a star, sun and moon.
The virgin and St. Joseph and the child who’s in his crib.

In Spanish:
En El portal de Belen hay estrella, sol y luna
La Virgen y san jose, el niño que esta en la cuna.

4. Bonnie Bloomgarden (Death Valley Girls)

“I didn’t grow up with Christmas as a family thing, so all my memories about Christmas are based on pretty much one thing, Batman Forever, and in particular, Danny Elfman’s music! There’s certain energy during Christmas and New Years that is unlike any other time of year.

“Almost the only thing the whole world celebrates together is New Years! It’s pretty special if you think about it. And nothing invokes more emotion or nostalgia in me than Danny Elfman’s music. Definitely watching movies he composed is my Christmas tradition. Happy end of the year, everybody!”

5. Wanz

“My tradition is that I sing ‘The Christmas Song‘ for my family. The song had been a staple part of my family’s Christmas Eve dinner gathering. While in college, I started singing it at the gatherings of other friends from school. In the ’90s, my workmates became a type of family, so I sang at our Christmas Parties. My old boss retired last summer and I sang it for her at her party. There were many times when I didn’t have money to buy a lot of presents, so I shared the gift God gave me.”

6. Eva Walker (The Black Tones)

“When I think of Christmas, I think of Luther Vandross and his album, This Is Christmas. We listened to that as a family every year growing up. I also think about decorating our many decades-old green, artificial Christmas tree with my grandmother while my grandpa put the holiday lights up in the house’s front windows. In terms of newer musical traditions, I love watching the Pee-wee Herman holiday special and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and singing along to all the songs.”

7. Big Freedia

“I came up in the church choir so we sang all the hymns during the holidays: ’Hark the Herald Angel Sings,’ ‘Silent Night’—all the classics. I just love them to this day and I play them during the holidays to get me in the mood. At home, my momma always had the holiday spirit! She played holiday music on the radio—The Jackson 5, Nat King Cole—while we all decorated the Christmas tree and my momma cooked food.

“This is my favorite time of year and I still get my family together and we sing along to the modern classics: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Destiny’s Child. I’m also happy I am at a place where I can contribute some of my own. This year is a bounce spin on a holiday favorite, ‘Tis The Season.’”

8. Victoria Blade (WandaVision actress, solo musician)

“Christmas has always been a musically vibrant time for me. I have many fond memories of lugging gear through the wintry weather to play sets at festive holiday gatherings and I usually write a Christmas song each year. Since the pandemic and complications of live shows, I’ve started a new tradition of playing a live set via Instagram on Christmas Eve Eve. I play a mix of old jazzy standards and original songs. It’s a fun and easy way to gather around music and spread some much-needed good cheer.”

9. Malina Moye

“Christmas is one of my favorite holidays of the year. As a little kid, we always opened our presents early morning on Christmas Day. So, I still stick to that same tradition. My fiancé and I wake up early Christmas morning and open our gifts. And I always check the cookies and milk that I left out the night before. True to fashion, Santa Claus still eats the two cookies I leave out for him!

“We then have a great breakfast, put on our fireplace, and visit with family and friends. Then later in the evening, we have dinner, watch movies, and laugh. No tradition is complete without watching It’s A Wonderful Life, and singing along with The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (the cartoon version, of course). Happy Holidays everyone!!!”

10. Julia Kugel (The Coathangers)

“The holiday season has always been special to The Coathangers. We have been intentional about having the time off to spend the season with family during our 10-plus years of constant touring. We have been known to listen to oldies, drink spiced wine and even string up popcorn for the tree. Nowadays, we spend Christmas in deep contemplation and crippling anxiety! Thanks to the global pandemic and the madness of misinformation, even quiet evenings with family teeter on politicized mayhem. It’s a different kind of fun!  

“In light of the past two years, we have new holiday traditions! As always, art and music are great escapes from the weight of the world and this unprecedented holiday feeling.  My new holiday tradition is to write and record music in an effort to deal with my own anxieties, and hopefully help others work through theirs. Tapping into the power of music moves us forward with love and respect for one another, in the spirit of gratitude and cooperation. Isn’t that what this season is all about? Other new traditions include turning off cell phones and really enjoying the precious time we have together, getting COVID tests and vaccinations, covering our mouths when we sneeze, and washing our hands constantly. Yay!  Merry Xmas.”

11. Jake Shimabukuro

“Growing up in Hawaii, we listened to a lot of classic traditional Christmas songs during the holidays. Of course, there were a few that were unique to the islands. ‘Christmas Luau’ and ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ were played all over the local radio stations. During my recent tour, I performed a holiday medley of three songs that expressed my experiences of Christmas in Hawaii. Those songs I played were ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas,’ ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Over The Rainbow (in the style of IZ)’.”

12. Mary Lambert

“If I am staying with my family in Everett, Washington, we usually walk to midnight mass at our church. My mom sings in the choir and usually has a solo and of course, we all cry because she’s a literal angel. It’s my favorite service because our rector is so captivating, the music is gorgeous, and the night ends with a candlelit a cappella rendition of ‘Silent Night.’

“We walk home together as a family and sing soft carols on our way home (maybe with some Weezer sprinkled in), open our Christmas pajamas, and the night owls of the family stay up and hang out. We haven’t been able to do it for the last couple of years with COVID and everyone’s schedules, but I can’t wait until we’re all together again!

13. Ricky Duran

“When I was younger I remember my family would get together for family parties. My dad would break out the guitar or sit at the piano and sing Christmas classics like ‘Feliz Navidad.’ But it wasn’t all Christmas-themed. For us, it was a rare and special time we all got to be together. We would sing songs everyone loved and could sing along to. I remember hearing a lot of the Beatles and Spanish classics my parents and uncles grew up on. Now, I’m trying to keep that tradition alive with my family and especially for all of my nephews. For me, the holidays are all about family time and creating memories.”

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