You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, but do you know the Christmas Unicorn? The Christmas Unicorn is the focal point of a family-favorite Christmas song that is not for the faint of heart. When you press play on Sufjan Stevens’s 12-minute musical masterpiece, you’re in for a mash-up of multiple genres, tempos, instruments and interpretations of what it takes to be deemed an icon of Christmas. And as a three year member of Stevens’ top 0.001% of listeners on Spotify according to my recent Spotify Wrapped, I feel compelled to share this song’s beauty with you all.
Movement One: Introductions
Stevens wastes no time. Immediately the song begins with a calm folk guitar undertone as the Christmas Unicorn is brought to life. The guitar takes the backseat and listeners are moved to listen to the words, which combine both religious and pagan elements to create a character who fully encompasses the evolved nature of the Christmas holiday season.
This unicorn is described as a “pagan heresy” as well as a “tragic Catholic shrine” all in one breath. This “horse with a fantasy twist” is also “hysterically American” with a “credit card on [its] wrist.” It dresses in a way that suggests definite ties to a magical realm with a “sorcerer’s shield” and “magical wreath” on its chin. Most importantly though, this complex beauty is “a little bit shy, with a lazy eye,” making it a perfectly imperfect representation of the elaborate background of the holiday.
Christmas has become unique to each person who celebrates it; one’s own memories, good and bad, are brought to the family dinner table. What better way to capture that reality than with a hodgepodge of oddities collected and displayed on a character of elegance and innocence like this Christmas Unicorn?
Techno Transport: Part One
The voice of the Christmas Unicorn concludes his introduction with “but I know you’re just like me,” catapulting listeners into the first techno transport of the song. The folksy elements of stringed instruments are still present, as well as the melody developed in the first phase of the song. However new electronic elements begin to be introduced, as well as a new melody with growing intensity.
This mostly instrumental section transports the listeners into their minds to carry out self-reflection. Are we really just like this beautifully complex Christmas Unicorn? What elements do we share with such a creature? How can we be just like this mythical animal?
Movement Two: You’re the Christmas Unicorn
Anyone who has had to analyze literature at some point in their lives has heard that repetition occurs for a reason. Repetition means something is being emphasized, so we should probably pay attention to what that something is. This phase begins with Stevens declaring that he is the Christmas Unicorn, and that “you,” the listener are too. This refrain builds to include the message that “it’s alright, I love you.”
Around the holiday time, there seems to be a sense of pressure looming in the air that things need to be perfect. You have to be nice enough to get on Santa’s list of good children, you have to hit the nail on the head when it comes to buying gifts, you have to have Clark Griswold style decorations illuminating your house, you have to get along with extended family, you have to ace all of your exams and end the semester strong.
But the Christmas Unicorn has already been established as imperfect, just like every human to walk this earth. And that’s alright. At its core, Christmas is still a time of love, and every person is deserving of receiving such love regardless of the mistakes they may have made this semester. Eventually a chorus of voices join in declaring for themselves they are the Christmas Unicorn as the music loses its folksy sound and becomes almost pure techno.
Techno Transport: Part Two
Congratulations! You’ve made it seven and a half minutes through! Building off of the techno style developed in Movement Two, a new meshing of melodies occurs. While you can still hear elements of the melodies that have come before, it’s clear the song is changing once again.
There are new sounds to be taken into account like a sort of heart beat monitor. It serves as another not so subtle reminder that while the song focuses on a ridiculous mythical creature, it’s really about humanity and the heart that makes Christmas Christmas.
There are also bells that begin to ring louder and louder in this instrumental section, revealing a new interpretation of what’s to come next: Love Will Tear Us Apart.
Movement Three: Love Will Tear Us Apart
Wasn’t the holiday season supposed to be about love and how this happy feeling manages to fascinate humanity for about a month? Why, then, is the song ending with love will tear us apart?
Well, let’s face it. Christmas isn’t perfect. There are fights, overcooked turkeys, disappointed children, disappointing grades and the knowledge that as wonderful as Christmas can be for the month of December, it won’t last.
When it’s time to go back to reality, we’re torn away from easily accessible holiday cheer. It’s harder to find reasons to cut ourselves some slack for our mistakes, but just because we’re imperfect doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for some cheer throughout the year. After all, “it’s alright, I love you.”
Techno Transport: Part Three
And so the ending begins. The final techno transport. Except this time, rather than being transported deeper into the maybe not-so-mystical world of the Christmas Unicorn, listeners are being transported back to reality.
As the music fades, listeners are given the freedom to accept the fact that they are, in a way, the alluringly flawed Christmas Unicorn. In what ways, that’s up to you to decide, but just know that “It’s alright, I love you.” That’s what Christmas is all about.