Words and Pictures by Greg Thrasher Christmas is more than a holiday on December 25th and it's more than some fictional bearded-man's birthday, it's an institution.  It's the physical and mental sabbatical we are awarded for putting up with less than favorable weather and fewer hours of daylight.  It can be a coping mechanism, the light at the end of the tunnel, the notion that whatever happened during the year up to that point, can be forgiven, forgotten, or even just dwelled upon. This time of pensive reflection can't help but conjure that dreary state of being known to most as melancholy.  So who better to consult than the musical king of sober thoughtfulness, Sufjan Stevens.  For those of you with swollen eyes and a trembling bottom lip, you're probably wondering why I bring up the emotion-inducing holiday, especially being that it is only late February. Long story short – back in 2007, Sufjan Stevens created a contest where he encouraged people to write and record their own Christmas song and submit it to him.  In return, the author of the winning song was awarded a Christmas-themed song that Sufjan wrote himself.  The winner was not only sent the song, but was awarded full rights to the song, and the choice to do anything he or she wanted with it – sell it, post it online, try to make a buck or two, etc.  Instead the winner, Alec Duffy of Prospect Heights, along with his friend and compatriot Dave Malloy, decided to do something not only a little different, but devastatingly honorable.  For 12 sessions Alec held intimate listening parties for four curious individuals: "In 2007, I was fortunate to win the Sufjan Stevens Xmas Song Exchange Contest with my song "Every Day is Christmas." As a reward, I received from Sufjan the exclusive rights to his winter song "The Lonely Man of Winter." No one but Sufjan's closest friends has heard this recording. In an effort to counter the cheapening effects of Internet all- availability, and to recapture an era when to get one's hands on a particular album or song was a real experience, we at my theater company, Hoi Polloi, would like to share this song with Sufjan fans in a special way. We would like to invite you to our Brooklyn home for an exclusive listening session of this gorgeous song, with hot beverages and cookies provided for your enjoyment. We'll share some conversation, slip some headphones on you, and press play. Please email for more information about finding a time to come over for a special listening session." Personally, I admit having fallen victim to the overabundance of accessibility granted to us with the Internet, and unfortunately the shroud of mystery that used to surround itself around certain artists or albums has been completely eliminated.  If you want to hear something, you can, no matter how rare or subterranean it is – whether you care to pay for it or not,  just type it in and there it is; yours forever. Just another song added to an astronomical number on an external hard drive. For those of us who relish dropping the needle and letting it follow the vinyl grooves, those days are sadly behind us, and now if you do or don't want to here a song ::click::.  Diplomatically speaking, but more so out of modern convenience, I've found myself embracing both schools of thought – while there's nothing better than dimming the lights and putting on an old and crackling Bob Wills vinyl, there are times (many times) that I'd love to listen to Bob Wills while riding the subway or walking down the street. ::click:: Being described as a Christmas song, however more appropriately a winter song, listening sessions in the sweltering New York summers wouldn't do it justice, and because Alec has no immediate plans of publicly releasing the song, us privileged elite of uber-hip individuals(!) are four of the few who will be able to cherish Sufjan's haunting, cold-weather carol. So there I was first to arrive, visibly timid and clothes damp from the rain.  There was no need for forced awkward conversation because right off the bat one can tell that both Alec and Dave are two genuine fellas.  As they finished baking the cookies and letting the phenomenal tea steep, I removed my shoes and we were able to get acquainted while waiting for the other three guests to arrive. Erik and Stephanie, a young couple, arrived with their own vegan cookies in hand, Nora arrived a bit after, and there we were – six strangers drinking tea in damp socks. The whole thing immediately seemed both surreal and painfully genuine. The lighting was pleasant, the couches were comfortable and everyone seemed relaxed and happy to be a part of this odd social gathering. After few minutes of getting to know each other through the typical "So what do you do?", Alec gave us brief rundown on the contest, and why he chose to do what he's doing.  We discussed how and when we first came about Sufjan, the artist's '50 states' project, Sufjan's calming effect on the psyliciban-riddled mind, and our general feelings toward the man and his creative output. I requested we listen to the winning song Alec wrote, "Every Day is Christmas," which while on the surface is just a simple little piano ditty, it's Alec's impeccable delivery that most likely won Sufjan's affection. Split into pairs, headphones in hand, we scooted closer to one of the two Mac computers set up in the room, as it was time to listen. How appropriate that we crowded around a Mac running iTunes... but wait, how are the sneaky minion's of Sufjan's colorful-winged cult going to try and secretly record the song if it's being played though headphones...boy that Alec's a thinker! Stephanie and Erik huddled on one side of the room, Nora and I on the other; the time had come to press play.  As I sat, eyes closed, trying to completely submerge myself in what was unmistakably a Sufjan Stevens song, I found myself looking around at the rest of the guests, wondering what was running through their minds – Do they like it? How does it make them feel? I'd rather not give too much away, but for a Christmas song, it was quite fucking macabre, and if there are still rumors circulating about Sufjan's recent depressed mindset and reclusive tendencies, "The Lonely Man of Winter" speaks volumes. Honestly, I think Sufjan is quite talented and have enjoyed most of his albums up to this point. Am I a superfan? Absolutely not. I was more interested in the unique experience.  Somehow though, and not surprisingly, these listening parties have been met with a multitude of digital backlash while comment sections have been set ablaze with scathing words and sometimes even childish threats.  The general consensus is that Alec is hoarding the song and not making it accessible for the droves of obsessive Sufjan fans, but after reading his mission statement, it seems absolutely ludicrous that people with half a brain can't appreciate the integrity of this project.  I hope Alec never publicly releases the song...ever...and if it's any consolation to the crybaby Sufjan fans: if you've heard one Sufjan Steven's song, you've heard them all...EXCEPT FOR THIS GORGEOUS ONE.