Monday, December 5, 2011

Attack of the Sugar Plum Witch

I’ll say it up front: “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” creeps me out.

It’s odd we now use the song as a shorthand for that late-night Christmas Eve magic — and by “we,” I mean the people who select music for TV commercials — because “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is just one of many compositions Tchaikovsky wrote for The Nutcracker. And while The Nutcracker is a ballet about Christmas and performed at Christmas, the song itself isn’t all that Christmas-y. Nearly all the other yuletide standards skew either tranquilly Christian (“O Holy Night,” “Silent Night”) or boisterously secular (“Jingle Bells,” “Deck the Halls”), yet “Sugar Plum Fairy” is ethereal and twinkly. And it’s centered not on Christ-birthing or gift-giving but on the performance of this woman, the reigning monarch of the candy land that serves as the setting for the second act. And while the song found a second life as a Christmas jingle, the fairy herself never became a major Christmas icon. I mean, I’ve got no clue what she should look like — except maybe purple, I guess? — and don’t even ask me a sugar plum is. (Wikipedia knows, but it’s for some reason a bit of trivia I can’t commit to memory.)

olga preobrazhenskaya, one of the early sugar plum fairies. (not purple.)
So how has it happened that the month of December cannot pass without subjecting us to the song on a daily basis? Well, independent of The Nutcracker, “Sugar Plum Fairy” has a Christmas tie as a result of song’s name. Regardless of the fact that no one really eats sugar plums anymore — right? — most people remember the line “While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads” from the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which is apparently the actual name of the poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” (Wikipedia knows a lot, it turns out!) And since Tchaikovsky composed The Nutcracker almost seventy years after “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was written, I guess he wasn’t breaking ground by associating the candy with Christmas.

There’s also the fact that the song makes a spot-on soundtrack for falling snow. Not that I can claim to understand the motivations of a musical genius like Tchaikovsky, but I might argue that in writing “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” he strove for music that would complement the lighter-than-air movements of a woman who dances the way snowflakes fall: gentle and soft, catching the light as they flit effortlessly through the sky. It’s no coincidence that he composed it to showcase an instrument so heavenly-sounding that it’s called the celesta. So since Christmastime often means gently falling snow, perhaps it’s this association that has prompted people to make it a holiday standard.

Listening to the song as often as I have in the past few days — on TV, in stores, in fantastical dreams I have about fighting a Mouse King in the Land of Sweets — I’m reminded that it is indeed a creepy song. I have always felt this way, and today I realized why. I have only watched The Nutcracker once or twice. The majority of the times I’ve heard “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” it’s been in different contexts, though it’s often used to underscore a certain kind of scene in contemporary pop culture: the latest, darkest hours of Christmas Eve. Extracted from The Nutcracker over, for example, a scene of parents tiptoeing through dark house and ninja-ing their presents under the tree or even some anonymous camera just winding around the decked (but darkened) halls, those suggestions at light, soft movement dredge up a different Christmas memory for me: my childhood fear of that bearded psychopath Santa Claus, whom neither my parents nor a burglar alarm could stop from entering our home in the middle of the night. All those twinkling notes trying to evoke sylph-like, muffled footsteps end up in my brain playing like the soundtrack to Santa slipping in — under the garage door, because in my young imagining of his evil process, he could make himself flat like a sheet of paper — and doing god-knows-what inside, only sparing our lives when he found our offering of milk and cookies satisfactory. It’s Santa Claus and his unstoppable, nearly undetectable movements that I’m thinking of when I hear that song.

And that is why a grown man with a mostly rational mind is on some level frightened of a song about a fairy queen’s pretty Christmas dance.

The celesta, by the way, is featured in many other compositions for which someone has decided to add in pretty princess twinkling. But it can also sound pretty damn magical while cutting the sweetness.

Neither sweet nor sinister, I say.

Some other surprising things I find scary:

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