Oh, Carol

LET'S NOT FOOL ourselves, people: We're in a recession. So unless you're part of the 1 percent of the population that controls our country's wealth (and, thus, controls the country), this year it's gonna be "a hard candy Christmas," as Dolly Parton likes to say.

So what if you can't afford to lavish your loved ones with expensive presents from the Bon. Big whoop—there are other ways to show you care. Perhaps you've already started thinking of gifts you can make yourself. Alas, if you've spent an afternoon watching Martha Stewart Living (as those of us among the underemployed classes are wont to do) since, oh, Labor Day, you know the deadline to begin fashioning junk mail circulars into seasonal pi�s or knitting cunning animal-print ski caps passed as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes were cleared away. And that's assuming you had sufficient funds to purchase the materials necessary for your project in the first place. Alpaca wool doesn't come cheap, my friends.

In a nutshell, if you're reading this, it's too late to start. You blew it. You've ruined Christmas.

OK, maybe not. Set aside those dreams of stitching together an heirloom quilt from your discarded T-shirts, and consider this practical gift option instead: writing your own Christmas carol. Imagine the glow of delight on the faces of your friends and family as you serenade them with your original composition about the birth of little baby Jesus (or the lighting of the menorah, or the bounty of Kwanzaa, etc.). It's fun, it's easy, and, best of all, it doesn't cost a dime.

Here are some simple guidelines for penning your own seasonal ditty. First, always keep brevity in mind. Your song needn't last more than a minute or two. It is not without reason that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has been the subject of countless TV special parodies. And I recall one especially grueling Yule where, upon completing all five verses of "Good King Wenceslas" at a brisk tempo, a member of my high-school madrigal ensemble fainted in the middle of the mall. Also, keep the lyrics succinct. You can get a lot of mileage out of a rousing run of fa-la-las.

As for subject matter, experts advise, "Write what you know." Do you have a relative with an especially pronounced foible? Then celebrate it in song. "Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)" helped make John Denver's Rocky Mountain Christmas a '70s turntable staple, while Merle Haggard's 1982 Christmas album includes such dysfunctional family favorites as "Daddy Won't Be Home Again for Christmas." Why not address your spouse's anger management problem with a tender tune titled "Black and Blue Christmas"?

If you prefer to take a more topical tack, remember that timing is everything. Unfortunately, it's about two years too late for "It's A Dot-Com Layoff Christmas," but there's still ample opportunity to address our president's environmental policies with "Who Clear-Cut All the Christmas Trees?" Who knows—at the rate the hole in the ozone is growing, your original "Santa's Wearing SPF 40" may surpass "White Christmas" in popularity someday very soon.

Maybe your imagination is more inclined to flights of fantasy. If so, please don't waste precious time trying to whip up your very own holiday icon, as tempting as visions of lucrative merchandise tie-ins may be. There's only room in the public imagination for one or two characters like Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer to take hold every century, and the brain surgeons at South Park have already cornered the market for the next 40-plus years with their scatological scamp, Mr. Hankey.

However, it is fun to dream up further adventures for beloved Christmas characters—"Frosty the Sno-Cone" anyone? Don't be afraid to challenge established holiday conventions, either. Back in 1988, Los Lobos breached the silence surrounding seasonal affective disorder with "Rudolph the Manic Reindeer." And who can forget the 1973 civil-rights anthem "Santa Claus Is a Black Man" by precocious African-American child star Akim?

Melodies are a little tougher than lyrics. (What, you think if I could write hit songs I'd still be hunched over my PC hammering out this dreck? Hell, no—I'd be calculating royalty statements and dusting my Grammys!) If you get stuck, borrow an old folk song and tweak it just enough so it sounds fresh. But make sure your source material—I mean, inspiration—is in the public domain. Otherwise, come January, you'll be ducking subpoenas from the Bee Gees or the embittered widow of one of Elvis' tunesmiths. Which might not be so bad. Once the trial is over, you could always get a jump on next year with "We'll Have a County Courthouse Christmas."

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