LISTEN to Christmas Eve with Oedipus on 89.7 WGBH Christmas Eve from 6:00 p.m. to midnight.
A lot of Boston Boomers may already know Oedipus as a legendary radio kingmaker—but if you’re a 20-something iPhone-poking millennial like me, you may be like “what’s a radio?” Or worse, you’re having weird thoughts about a different, Not-Safe-For-Moms kind of Oedipus (Oedi explained later, via email, that the name was inspired by the Greek mythological malcontent who was the original, uh, "mofo"—if you will.)
Anyway, this Oedipus rose to DJ fame with the first punk rock radio show in America where he helped popularize game-changing bands like The Clash, the Ramones, and the Talking Heads.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Oedipus and ask him about the origins and magic of his annual show, Christmas Eve with Oedipus.
Chiquita Paschal: How did it start, when did it start?
Oedipus: Well, it started over 30 years ago at WBCN. It was the rock station in Boston. It no longer exists. In the day, I was a part-time DJ, and nobody wanted to work Christmas eve. And as a part-time DJ, I'd work anytime. I just wanted to be on the air, so I did Christmas eve and I started playing Christmas music. And I realized it was fairly limited, and I didn’t have enough Christmas music so I played music that sounded like Christmas as well.
Paschal: How does something sound like Christmas?
Oedipus: For instance, Elvis Costello's Peace, Love and Understanding-- that’s Christmas, because that's what Christmas is, that’s what it should be. That’s what it feels like in Boston. So if it sounds like Christmas, feels like Christmas, I consider it a Christmas song.
But I started collecting it over the years and I also really enjoyed being alone in the studio by myself with the listeners.
Paschal: For six hours?
Oedipus: For six hours. People shouldn’t have to work on Christmas. They should be with their families, with their loved ones. And if not, they’re with me. And I’m with them. So I’m alone in the studio and I have my music. I have my candle lit, and my glass of wine, and my music and together we welcome Christmas.
Paschal: Has there ever a year when you wished you were with people? Because when you’re in the studio, you’re not actually interacting with people. You’re kind of talking into the void. So how do you get the sense that there are other people on the other end of that?
Oedipus: I love it. I know there are other people there. I’m never lonely. and it’s the one time of year I get to hear all these songs again. So I play them really loud. I don’t have guests, I don’t take requests. I don’t take phone calls, I’m not on the internet. I’m just listening to this music and creating the show as I go along. It’s joyful. I absolutely love doing it. And I pride myself on not playing one of those songs that if you heard one more time you’d want to kill the DJ or smash your radio. You will not hear any song that you hear in the mall, that you hear in the elevator that you hear everywhere.
Paschal: That Wham! song?
Oedipus: You will not hear that Wham! song.
Paschal: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. What is the most challenging part of putting together this program every year?
Oedipus: Listening to all the music again. I need to reacquaint myself with all the new songs. The hardest part is listening to hundreds of bad Christmas songs and rejecting them. Not another version of that song. They haven’t done anything to make it their own except that they’re singing it. And I don’t play those songs. Unless they reinterpret the song its not worthy of sharing on the airwaves bc once again you’d say, 'Oh no, not that song.'
In the day I played the Waitresses because no one had heard the Waitresses. Now I can’t play the Waitresses because that songs happens to be heard everywhere, Christmas wrapping.
Paschal: So I think it’s kind of interesting in the evolution of your career, as a DJ, and you have this knack for picking up on the newest music before it breaks. You brought punk to Boston and probably the world. On the one hand you’re the father of punk. And on the other, you’re father Christmas.
Oedipus: Well my musical tastes are quite varied. Christmas is in keeping with my vast musical taste. I love pop, especially this current crop of pop I think is just great. Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift. I love Drake. What can I say? The songs are great. Christmas has just become something very special to me. and I get to do it once a year, and share it with everybody and it's become a tradition in Boston for a very big cult following.
Paschal: You’ve been on the air all these years and obviously the radio industry has changed a lot in all those years. How has the changing nature of the radio industry impacted things like the Christmas tradition of your show?
Oedipus: Radio has become homogenized, and most of it is programmed nationally from headquarters, so you really don’t hear local variations. There’s a few but not much. So these traditions are just not developed any longer.
And when I get off the radio at midnight in the past, and punch around the stations and most are not playing any Christmas music. There’s no acknowledgment that it’s actually Christmas at this point, since it’s after midnight.
No one’s even saying, 'Merry Christmas'. It’s like this is a major holiday and you’re not even acknowledging that it’s Christmas on your radio station. It’s sad.
Paschal: Were you sad when Starbucks took the Christmas trees off their cups?
Paschal: In general, this sort of downplaying of Christmas— do you think it has effected something larger?
Oedipus: Christmas should be time for celebration. It shouldn’t be only affiliated with a religion because it's really not just about a religion. We all have our traditions: We have Hanukkah, we have Kwanzaa, we have Christmas, but Christmas did not begin as a Christian holiday. It simply didn’t. It has it’s roots in the Saturnalia. It wasn’t until the fourth century that the pope decided to make Christmas in December, it was primarily because of the solstice, because of the Saturnalia. That’s when it was celebrated in Rome and it was the loss of light.
This was when the harvest was in because it was an agrarian culture. The harvest is in. The wine is made, it’s fresh; the beer is made, it’s fresh. There’s fresh game. So what do you do? You party. You share the bounty. There’s nothing else to do.
There are no shops to go to, you’re not going to the theater. There’s no movies, there’s no internet. There’s no light! So you partied. And you partied for weeks. It was a big celebration of the end of the season and the beginning of the light coming back after the 21st.
So these are the roots of Christmas—it didn't become a domestic holiday until the 1800s. Prior to that it was like a Bacchanalia. It was like the Mardi Gras. Men dressed as women, women dressed as men, There was fornicating, there was gambling, lots and lots of drinking.
And people went to the landowner’s house, to their homes and they would wassail to the landowners. And the landowners were expected to share the bounty with their peasants, with their people who worked the land. It was a way of keeping the social structure intact. And we still do it today. We tip heartily at Christmas. We are expected to give gifts to the people who help us out. We do it all the time, the people who work for us, we share in the bounty and it maintains the social structure so that your newspaper doesn’t land in the puddle when they deliver it, they put it on your door, or the UPS guy or the mailman, or whoever else you tip. The guy who parks your car. We give to many charities during this holiday season. We recognize that we should take care of our own.
Paschal: So you have this great, epic Christmas eve tradition, but what do you do when you turn off the lights in the studio and go home. What do you do on Christmas day?
Oedipus: You open presents on Christmas morning... And then I go to my best friend’s house. And we eat and drink and open presents and listen to music.
Paschal: Sounds hearty and wholesome.
Oedipus: And then I take off and go to Asia with my wife for three months and escape New England winters!