It can be a challenge to write a Christmas song. Just ask Steven Van Zandt, who created the hit “All Alone on Christmas” for the Home Alone 2: Lost in New York movie. “You’re competing with “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls,”” Van Zandt tells American Songwriter. “With songs that are completely embedded in the consciousness of the world for 100 years.”
Van Zandt had even more of a task on Chris Columbus’ The Christmas Chronicles 2, which hits Netflix from November 25. “Working with Darlene Love, you know you’re gonna have to bring it,” he says. “Darlene is the best thing in the world, as far as I’m concerned, and so you want to make sure you do something that’s gonna be up to her standards.”
But Van Zandt more than ably managed to make magic once again, and the result is “The Spirit of Christmas,” performed by the one and only Love, alongside Kurt Russell in the followup to 2018’s The Christmas Chronicles. It’s the third song Van Zandt has written for a Chris Columbus movie, following “All Alone on Christmas,” back in 1992 and “The Time of Your Life” for 1995’s Nine Months, which he calls the most important song he’s ever written. “Chris brings out the best in me,” says the guitarist-actor-producer.
In the first The Christmas Chronicles, Van Zandt and his band, the Disciples of Soul, joined Russell, who plays Santa Claus, in a performance of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” Columbus produced that film, but he directed the sequel, which now sees one of the siblings from the first film reunite with Santa to save Christmas from a troublesome elf. It also reunites Russell and his partner Goldie Hawn for the first time onscreen in over 35 years.
Columbus, the man behind so many popular family-centered films like “Home Alone,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and “Mrs Doubtfire,” wanted to involve his longtime friend and E-Street member Van Zandt in a bigger number for the sequel. Their friendship dates back to Columbus’ abiding love for Bruce Springsteen, which was fostered while the Oscar-nominated filmmaker was studying at NYU. “I don’t have to tell Steven much. I know every time he’s going to write me something that it’s going to be great,” Columbus tells American Songwriter. “There’s only one other guy like that — John Williams. He comes in, we do it and it always works. When I first heard “The Spirit of Christmas,” I was like, ‘this is truly what I need!’”
The song comes in a rousing mid-film airport lounge sequence in which Love plays as an airline clerk trying to pacify unhappy stranded customers. Together with Santa, they engage in a full song-and-dance, the kind that harks back to the days of Busby Berkeley. “In the first one, we didn’t have space to do much,” says Columbus. “This time, I wanted to do a full-blown musical number. You’ll notice that even the color of the scene changes; it turns from dreary to technicolor when the song begins.”
Bringing Love back into the mix was a given for Van Zandt, having seen her create a smash out of “All Alone for Christmas,” which sent her back into the charts again after the enduring success of 1963’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home.)” That song, which was the only original track on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, remains etched in holiday music tradition, making Love forever associated with yuletide joy — and longing.
“Chris called me and he said, ‘I want you to write something and I’m hearing a duet. I am sure I know who you want to use.’ ‘Three guesses,’ I said,” chuckles Van Zandt. “I can’t get enough of Darlene Love!” Although there was talk of involving a younger singer, Van Zandt recorded the demo for the song with Love, and that was enough for Columbus. “You can’t say no to that,” says Columbus. “When I heard that demo for the first time, I was like, ‘this is it!’”
As Van Zandt adds: “I knew it would work because she’s also a good actress. She’s played Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon series, so she’s used to acting. I knew she’d be able to handle the acting part of it too, because she’d actually be in the movie. It felt like the right move and it turned out great.”
The entire song is not in the movie, but Columbus says there are plans to release a complete video for it soon. “I’ve been asked a bunch, ‘why a musical number?’ and I can’t give you an answer. But once we did one in the first one, I knew we had to do one in the second, and if we do a third, we’ll do one in the third,” he says. “It’s like those early Marx brothers movies, with Chico and Harpo playing the piano…As a kid, I loved those moments in those movies. God only knows what we’ll do next. I know Kurt has this idea that he wants to perform in a white beard with the 3 guys from ZZ Top,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll go for that one.”