Footsteps in the Snow

Unraveling a Christmas music mystery

Album art for the 2018 reissue of Merry Christmas to you from Joseph.

A FEW YEARS AGO, while flipping through the new arrivals crate at Nice Price Records in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was visiting family over the holidays, I became transfixed by what I heard playing on the store’s stereo system. It was immediately recognizable as Christmas music: A jubilant, resonant male baritone implored the listener to “let me hang my mistletoe over your head / and let me love you.” But the voice, landing somewhere between the velvet burliness of Teddy Pendergrass and the genteel phrasing of Lou Rawls, like the lustrous production and extravagant, modern R&B arrangement, which included female backup singers who swooned along to the singer’s seductive caroling, seemed unlocatable. Likewise, the song, a lurching minor-key slow jam in 3/4 time, had a weird melancholia at odds with the enforced buoyancy of the holiday season even as it summoned a long tradition of holiday music, such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Blue Christmas,” that expresses how cheery expectations at year’s end can often yield an aching emptiness. Amid these mixed messages and sundry stylistic signals, it was hard to tell if the song was festive burlesque or heartfelt holiday paean. I was intrigued, to say the least.

I asked the person behind the counter what I was hearing and they pulled out a vinyl copy of Merry Christmas to You from Joseph. The cover art, featuring an apparently Photoshopped portrait of a Black man wearing a Santa outfit and a pair of headphones, didn’t clarify things. Nor did the credits printed on the back of the sleeve, which listed a release date of 2018. And with a name like Joseph Washington Jr., it was hard to gather information from the internet. Did Joseph Washington Jr. really exist, I began to wonder, or was this some sort of nom de plume used by a session musician who always wanted to record a Christmas album (or perhaps wanted to remain anonymous since Christmas albums are often seen as cash-ins or used to fulfill contract obligations)?

The mystery surrounding the man behind the music only magnified the outlandishness of the songs, all of which, according to the credits, were penned by Washington. (A Christmas album consisting entirely of original compositions? Unusual, if not unprecedented.) While tunes like “Rudolph” and “Sharing Christmas with You” draw upon archetypal yuletide themes and subjects, there was something about them—with their funky, bass-driven breakdowns (performed by Washington) and sparse, seemingly offhand lyrics often consisting of a repeated phrase and interstitial warbles and wails—that seemed far from the traditional genre.

Take the second song on the album, “Jesus’s Birthday.” After a few bars of scatted singing of the title the lyrics move from guileless astonishment—“Now can you imagine a kid born from a virgin mother?”—to tautological literalism: “Well there’s a day in December for as long as I can remember. / That day is the twenty-fifth day of December. / We call it Christmas, well it’s a day to remember.” Set against a lolloping rhythm and catchy, singsong melody, the lyrics, even when they go on to describe Jesus’s ultimate role as redeemer, seem like an afterthought, or a pretext superimposed on preexisting vamps and chord changes. Like “Let Me Hang My Mistletoe” and the infectious earworm “Shopping,” in which Washington’s slightly flat intoning of the chorus—“I’m going shopping, shopping, shopping around downtown”—perfectly captures the manic consumerism that accompanies the holiday spirit; the song traffics as much in the profane as the sacred. Like some of the greatest soul music, Washington’s songs joyfully confound corporeal and spiritual ecstasy.

I have been sharing my passion for this album with friends for a long time now, despite not knowing much about its creator or context. This year I finally decided to reach out to Douglas Mcgowan, the producer who signed the record for Numero Group (the label that reissued Washington’s album). He provided some essential background and put me in touch with Washington’s son, Silas; as Mcgowan told me, Joseph passed away in late 2021, after years of declining health. Washington, who worked by day as a plasterer, was a San Jose–based musician who performed around the Bay Area in the mid-1970s, releasing two self-produced singles and occasionally appearing on Jay Payton’s long-running show “Soul Is” on San Francisco’s KEMO station. Washington made two LPs in the 1980s, both released independently, without support from a label: his unlikely Christmas album debut in 1981 was followed by a second record, Make Way for Love, in 1988. As surveyed in the fascinating book Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records 1958–1992 (Sinecure Books, 2012), such “private press” records represent a sort of “outsider art” of the music industry and have been long treasured by a small group of collectors. (Original copies of Washington’s record often go for around $100.)

For someone like me, who has always had a little trouble getting behind a miraculous virgin birth but nevertheless looks forward each year to the warm glow of the holidays and its promise of parties and presents, Washington’s album hits a sweet spot between sanctified good spirits and secular seasonality, one that was originally charted by such midcentury classics as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” I like to think that Washington’s Christmas jams, largely unburdened the past and never taking themselves too seriously, are just the sort of new classics needed right now. Against the rampant fatalism of the current moment, I recommend the brilliant, synth-laden album closer, “New Year,” whose paradoxical promise to “do the things I didn’t do in 1982”—presumably a reference to what the singer intends to do in the year following the record’s release, the line introduces a fundamental temporal ambiguity to the song—feels eternally relevant, offering a commemoration based on renunciation, a supplication for things done and left undone, and, ultimately, an invitation to get down while the getting is good.