In the Lost Dogs liner notes, Stone Gossard writes about having been filled with the Christmas spirit when writing “Strangest Tribe”, which is wholly evident in every aspect of the song, one of Pearl Jam’s strongest X-mas single tracks. From originals (“Let Me Sleep”) to covers (“Don’t Believe In Christmas”) to even just the odd sprinkling of sleigh bells (“Happy When I’m Crying”) plenty of the X-mas tunes haven’t only been so nominally. But “Strangest Tribe” best captures, at least to my ears, the dark, winter solstice side of the holiday.
It’s pretty clear that the strangest tribe in question refers to the three wise men of the biblical narrative. Also known as magi, or the three kings, the three wise men were Median Zoroastrian priests from Persia, and were proficient in astrology. “Strangest Tribe”, in addition to alluding to the Star of Bethlehem that led the kings to Jesus’s manger (“Follow the angled light”) also make mention of the Milky Way Galaxy (“Follow the ancient stripe”). This linking of the scientific with the spiritual/poetic is extremely powerful as art, regardless of one’s belief or non-belief in organized religion of any sort.
These are, without a doubt, Gossard’s best lyrics. Phonetically, he’s firing on all cylinders–there’s not a single awkward or bad line, and the repetition of the hard “i” further creates an atmosphere of reverence and peacefulness. “Follow the angled light / Follow the ageless tide / Follow the strangest tribe”: each line develops on the one prior making excellent use of slant rhyme. The lines also follow verses that depict anticipation of the secular holiday (feasts, his “eminence” Mr. Claus, the beautifully described “winded eves and sideways snow”), suggesting that the song is a call to let go of the excessive materialism that has come to completely overshadow Christmas.
Not that “Strangest Tribe” is about renouncing or denying the joys of the season, or letting Jesus into your heart, or anything like that. It’s just a reminder of the mystical nature of that particular time of year when the days are shortest (at least in the northern hemisphere), and the immensity of the night sky gives us a chance to ponder existence. “Strangest Tribe” also reminds us, with real writerly efficiency, that the strange pagan qualities inherent in Christmas don’t just come from Saturnalia or the various ancient European solstice festivals, but from the Bible itself. Astrology and Zoroastrianism are certainly not associated with the birth of Jesus by most of today’s Christians–but elements of each are integral to the story. Prophet-scientists crossing the desert under a cold night sky bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh: how wonderfully strange.