Let me preface these words by saying I’m a sucker for Christmas albums. They are—please forgive me—among the “few of my favorite things.” I grew up in a house with a 1960s-era RCA Victrola console record player in the family room—the kind of system parents would have called a “hi-fi” and on which dads across America would have played Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band’s classic best-seller Whipped Cream & Other Delights (which, sad to say, was actually shaving cream—it didn’t melt as quickly during the photo shoot) at cocktail parties.
An early favorite Christmas memory was Mom’s playing Bing Crosby’s White Christmas LP and other Christmas records while decorating the house and trimming the tree. I’ve been hooked ever since.
In 1985, Yes frontman Jon Anderson, whose overt religious tendencies on Yes albums were always toward the Eastern, the mystical, and the syncretic,† made a surprisingly straightforward and orthodox Christmas album called 3 Ships. It’s incredibly beautiful, and I couldn’t love it more… Well, that’s not quite right. Like so much of that era’s great music, in order to fully enjoy it, you have to get past the ’80s aesthetic: cheap digital synthesizers throughout the mix—including synthesized drums and bass.
Still, it’s worth the effort. It has some traditional Christmas carols, but ones that are more English-oriented and less familiar (to me, anyway): “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” and “Three Ships.” He has a breathtakingly good “Oh Holy Night,” which includes a black gospel choir—of course, it’s hard to screw that one up too badly.
In his original songs, however, Anderson reflects on the deeper meaning of Christmas—in a very personal and touching way. Just because it veers at times toward universal peace and love themes doesn’t mean it’s not also true. He captures a sense of joy and wonder—how many Christmas records can you say that about? His ear for a good tune won’t let you down, either: none of his original melodies is embarrassed alongside the traditional songs.
I have it on vinyl. It has been reissued on CD in a “22nd Anniversary Edition” (who does that?) with tons of bonus songs and a revised order of songs, but I’m sure it’s worthy. You can also find it on eBay
† Not that these things are necessarily bad: Christianity is more Eastern than Western; has a strong mystical tradition; and, since there is one Spirit revealing truth, shares much in common with other religious traditions.