Screenshot of Dolly Parton performing "Hard Candy Christmas" via YouTubeTo me, there's only ever really been one Christmas album, a cassette. As far as I know, the only place you could buy it was Dillard's, the department store. Also as far as I know, my family are the only people who have ever listened to it. I mean, statistically, there must be other people who did listen to it, who perhaps even cherish it to this day. If you're out there, you know what I'm talking about because side A of this cassette is the best collection of Christmas music that exists. When I was younger, I would listen to it over and over, rewinding rather than switching to the other side. Mostly there was this one song, a really upbeat and merry number called "Santa's Reindeer Ride" that painted all these endearing pictures of Santa's workshop and that sounded like the aural equivalent of a candy cane. But if you let the whole side of the cassette play out, there were others, particularly a sad country song that I knew was beautiful but didn't quite make sense, called "Hard Candy Christmas."
Christmas, to me, has always been an almost unreservedly happy holiday. Yet as I've grown older I've come to resent the way that Christmas is presented as such an overwhelmingly upbeat occasion, as if the act of celebration begins and ends with dancing around a Christmas tree hand-in-hand with a gingerbread man while Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer looks on approvingly. It's a holiday for people who can't wait to scrapbook it and share it on Facebook. I know that my gripe is the plot of literally every Christmas movie—group goes into Christmas caught up in the act of celebrating like maniacs only to learn that the true meaning of the holiday is to stop and appreciate the things that matter, such as family—but still, it's draining to hear songs (or to be around people, frankly) that egg on the idea of Christmas as a time of reckless, sleigh bell-filled jubilation rather than a time of respite and quiet reflection. Perhaps part of this reaction has to do with hearing songs like "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time" played on a loop many years after that cassette arrived during a stint working at Dillard's (and elsewhere in retail, but that's the poetic one) during the holidays. Obviously that's part of it. But because of that reaction, "Hard Candy Christmas," always a perfect, arresting song, has only grown on me.There's Dolly Parton's voice, of course, that magical, throaty soprano, the way she trills through phrases like "thr-ou-ou-ou-gh tooomorrow," and coyly retreats from the lyrics she sings almost as soon as they leave her mouth. That's part of the magic. And then there's the song itself, which dwells on the possibilities for spending this Christmas and the time thereafter in any number of ways: moving somewhere new, losing some weight, cleaning out junk, getting drunk at the bar (the last with an enthusiastic curl of the word "drunk"). Most of all there's that chorus: "I'll be fine and dandy / Lord it's like a / hard candy Christmas / I'm barely getting through tomorrow / but still I won't let sorrow bring me way down." Gritty, sad, out-of-luck, and ultimately hopeful, it's an ideal refrain whether you're scraping through an isolated holiday or reflecting on the larger general ebb and flow of life's fortunes. How can it not give you encouragement? Listen to the way that Dolly stretches out those words and lets them linger. F-i-i-i-ine and dandy. Listen to how she digs into "won't let me way down." You can almost see the tough-as-nails singer mulling over a beer at some nameless bar and then hitting the open road, undeterred by setbacks.And that's why it's such a good holiday song, why it's the kind of song that goes way beyond bullshit Facebook Christmas music. The end of the year, no matter how obstinately we avoid the fanfare, brings with it a period of suspension and reflection and reinvention. We have our New Year's resolutions to make, a promise of change right in our grasp. "Hard Candy Christmas" captures the feeling of weighing those options, from the total flights of fancy to the depressingly familiar (i.e. the bar), which is something that connects no matter hard the candy is on any particular Christmas. We delude ourselves when we begin to think that a holiday might have all the answers—once again, yes, a common Christmas movie theme—but "Hard Candy Christmas" is ideal beause it celebrates the hope that comes with merely asking the questions. Also, wow, Dolly Parton's voice is crazy!Follow Kyle Kramer on Twitter.