'Wrapped in Red' tells the story of a big gamble at Christmas, and it's a holiday treat

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Kelly Clarkson’s “Wrapped in Red” is the best Christmas song about “Love Actually” ever.

It’s the title track to her Christmas album, which was released five years ago. And while it hasn’t yet entered the Christmas canon, it deserves to.

Christmas music is polarizing. Some adore it and listen to Wham’s “Last Christmas” in the summertime, some can’t stand it and won’t even hum along to “Jingle Bells” if it’s playing at Starbucks while they’re waiting in line for their holiday praline latte. (Though not every version of “Jingle Bells” is worth humming along to — looking at you, Pentatonix.)

There’s a kitsch factor tied to Christmas music that some can’t see past, and that’s fine. It doesn’t make them a Grinch, it just makes them, well, not very fun to be around at the holidays.

Fan or not, among the Christmas tunes that are officially unavoidable between now and the end of the year, there are a group of classics that stand out above the rest.

 

Think Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock.” These songs, all released between 1942 and 1961, are woven into the fabric of the season, and tie into a nostalgic ideal of the Christmas holiday. They paint a picture of families around the Christmas tree, stockings hung over the fireplace, images that may not even exist in real life, but are as much a part of Christmas as eggnog and trips to the mall to see Santa Claus.

A newer crop of Christmas jingles has joined that elite club, as well. Wham’s “Last Christmas,” which was already a tearjerker before George Michael died on Christmas Day, is in there. Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis,” thanks in part to its invaluable cameo in “Die Hard,” makes the cut. (And yes, “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie, thank you very much.)

And modern Christmas is unimaginable without Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” which was released in 1994, but only became entrenched in the holiday season when it was featured prominently in the Christmas-set romantic comedy “Love Actually” in 2003.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to “Wrapped in Red.”

The song, written by Clarkson and three co-writers (including Shane McAnally, who works closely with Sam Hunt and Kacey Musgraves), opens with typical scenes of Christmas (“everybody’s happy, snow is falling down”) but quickly shifts into the story of an individual harboring a major crush on an unsuspecting acquaintance.  

“From afar I’ve loved you, but never let it show,” the “American Idol” winner sings, over a bed of Phil Spector-like instrumentation. “And every year another December comes and goes.”

But this Christmas that’s going to change, because at Christmas you tell the truth. Or at least that’s the idea that “Love Actually” sold, in the storyline between Kiera Knightley and Andrew Lincoln’s characters, which culminates with Lincoln spilling his guts to Knightley at her front door, via cue card, while her husband is a few feet away on the couch, unsuspecting.

It’s “Love Actually’s” most famous scene, and even if “telling the truth” (or trying to steal your friend’s girl) have never actually been hallmarks of the Christmas season, the scene made it feel like these were time-honored Christmas traditions. And Clarkson’s “Wrapped in Red” reinforces those ideas, and her stunning, full-bodied vocals sell the idea to anyone within earshot.

“This Christmas, I’m gonna risk it all,” Clarkson belts, her voice swelling, the wall of sound building behind her. “This Christmas, I’m not afraid to fall.”

There’s risk, there are emotional stakes, and the song takes you on a ride. And it’s festive with a tinge of heartbreak, like Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” another Christmastime standard that touches on the sadness that’s a part of the holiday season.

Classics aren’t born overnight, it takes time for culture to come around to them. But in 10, 15, 20 years, Clarkson’s “Wrapped in Red” will still be out there telling the truth. Because at Christmas, that’s what you do.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

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