O ne tiny blessing about celebrating the holidays during these hard, hard times is it's not so much about the shopping.
Crafts, acts of kindness, charity and other things emphasizing goodwill toward men are trendy. As a perpetual cheapskate, I'm well-versed in presenting (nearly) cost-free presents as personal.
So my annual roundup of free holiday music downloads keeps personalities in mind. Burn these to a blank disc costing a few pennies, make a decent cover and the result is longer-lasting than a card or batch of cookies (make some of the latter anyway).
Pre-wrapped gift slackers
Gyozamonsta (gyozamonsta.wordpress.com/2008/1½9/gyozamonstas-2nd-annual-free-holiday-music-roundup): You could Google "holiday mp3s" according to your recipient's taste in music and deity. Or just peruse this list of mixtapes (and others in the archives section) from around the Web. They're the perfect accompaniment for Hickory Farms' baskets that emerge from hibernation only during the holidays. (A friend never got over repeating "Would you like to try the beef log?" hundreds of times during a temporary mall gig, although she at least had the good fortune to be female.)
Feels Like Christmas (feelslikechristmas.com): Some of everything, nicely sorted into vocal and instrumental categories, both traditional and contemporary. Just enough of each to make a good collection without overwhelming.
Royalty-Free Holiday Music (incompetech.com/m/c/royalty-free/holiday.html): For those drowning their sorrows at Cinnabon and Starbucks after finding everything on their kids' lists sold out, a dozen mellow instrumentals by ensembles of varying sizes. The site also has hundreds of other songs sorted by genre, but, like a lot of royalty-free music, they tend to be short pieces with mood "themes" - although they're perfect for soundtracks on those unbearable holiday home movies.
Shopoholics seeking stress
XmasRox (xmasroxvol3.blogspot.com): It looks oh-so-tempting. Three large collections of rock tunes by famous artists across the decades, nicely compressed into ZIP files. But getting them is like trying to be one of the first 50 shoppers to get that special-priced big-screen at Wal-Mart, since the site limits visitor download traffic unless you pay for the premium service. You have to wait a minute between failed attempts, but if you're doing other things at the computer it's worth the effort, since these easily compare with any "various artists" collection in stores.
Rainbow Foods freakniks
Brooklyn Vegan (www.brooklynvegan.com/tag/holiday+music): If candles are too expensive or just tiresome, this moderately large collection of Woodstock, alternative and such artists is the perfect mood music for that hot bar lunch that rivals Madden '09 in cost. And, keeping it PC, there's lots of Hanukkah stuff by the likes of Woody Guthrie thrown in.
Loud and proud about that 'other' holiday
The Beat Guide To Yiddish (www.shemspeed.com/diwon): A 25-minute hip-hop medley incorporating old-school Yemenite and Sephardic recordings ranging from ballads to dance, all remixed to match the mood of someone ingesting too many sufganiyots. A true cultural education beneath the beats, but play it around your grandmother and you'll still get whacked with last week's challah.
Kwaya Kuu, Kikosi cha Injili Tanzania (music.download.com/swahili/3600-8445_32-101137536.html): Face it - one of the best things about the inflation of Kwanzaa as a holiday is the music is way better than what "real America" is weaned on. This set is just a starting point for a massive collection of African music at music.download.com (traditionalists can always check out the holiday section instead). But this overly commercial site requires more than modern cultural thinking since most of the songs are streaming audio only - luckily entire collections can be played at once or I wouldn't be mentioning the site - requiring lots of clicks to get to the one or two downloads on many pages. Still, in terms of musician quality, it's hard to beat.
War on Christmas warriors
DIH & Friends (hallo-excentrico.blogspot.com/2007/12/merry-christmas-from-dih-friends.html): A group of varying alternative, ambient and spoken-word musicians that has released anti-Christmas albums every year since 2002. Good stuff for brooding and magnifying resentment toward people obsessed with finding or buying joy, but not so much for firing up the troops at a mall protest.
Mark Sabbatini is a professional music reviewer living in Longyearbyen, Norway, a suburb of the North Pole which reportedly houses Santa's workshop in an "abandoned mine." The longtime Juneau resident expects little from Santa this year since trips to the market usually involve raiding the butcher for some of the Jolly One's herd (also available in convenient diced packages in the frozen food section).