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The Story Behind "Christmas Eve in Washington"

Its singer doesn't care what you think.
Photograph by Flickr user Richard Riccardi.

If there’s any time when it’s most appropriate to play Christmas music, it’s today, obviously. Perhaps you’ve got A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector playing on repeat, adding occasional tracks from Mariah Carey, Run-D.M.C., Julian Casablancas, and Beach House.

But there’s one holiday cut that even the most ardent fans of Christmas music in Washington might stray from: “Christmas Eve in Washington,” a slow, melodic song released in 1982 by local singer Maura Sullivan. The song is unlike any other holiday pop track. Instead of Darlene Love-style longing or musing about Santa Claus’s whereabouts, Sullivan’s lyrics talk about America, freedom, and sites around the greater Washington area like the Blue Ridge mountains and Chesapeake Bay.

The song is a mainstay of local radio stations playing Christmas music, but outside those airwaves, Sullivan’s song is most likely found these days on internet lists of the worst holiday songs. It’s easy to see that argument: “Christmas Eve in Washington” is high schmaltz that exchanges yuletide spirits for fist-pumping patriotism and Santa for Thomas Jefferson.

Christmas in Hollis” aside, there are few great geospecific holiday songs. But just how did Washington wind up with one that is met with so much (mostly) online revulsion? Back in the ’80s, Sullivan was a frequent guest on country station WMZQ’s morning show. One of the bits she’d do with host Jim London was take callers’ suggestions for song ideas. Usually it’d be silly stuff like “my old dog and my pickup truck and the autumn leaves,” Sullivan recalls.

In late 1982, London and Sullivan conspired to write a Christmas song from the station to the listeners. London came up with the opening line, “It’s snowing tonight in the Blue Ridge.” Sullivan says she immediately responded with “There’s a hush over Chesapeake Bay.” Twenty minutes later, the song was finished, and Sullivan went down to Nashville, Tennessee, to record it with her backing band.

Sullivan and London debuted the finished track with a series of appearances on other Washington radio stations. The first few times they played it, though, they played the A-side, which rival stations probably did not appreciate. The better-known lyric “Our joyous wish for you, is for peace, love, and laughter, to last the whole year through,” is actually on the B-side of Sullivan’s original 45. The A-side replaces that last line with “from WMZQ.”

The song quickly became a staple of local holiday playlists, even as it’s picked up legions of internet bashers. But Sullivan, reached by phone on the road to Ohio, doesn’t mind the haters.

“Does it bother me?” she says. “No. Not everybody’s patriotic. I’m the one that gets the letters and emails from wonderful service members who take the CD overseas and have it on their iPods.”

Sullivan says that besides the local stations playing it today, “Christmas Eve in Washington” is heard on radio stations in Canada, the UK, and Germany.

“It’s about the nation’s capital,” she says. “This is where I have lived for many years, and this is my home.”

London died in 2012, and Sullivan, now a real estate agent, doesn’t sing much in public anymore outside special appearances. (She popped up to sing it last year on WTTG-TV’s morning show.) But as the song lives on digitally, she still gets requests—and pans.

“One guy wrote that I was deliberately ruining his Christmas,” she says. “People can turn off the radio or switch stations.”

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.