They’re selling Christmas cards of the hanging, and painting the passports with a nice, twinkly glitter.

A grotto has opened on Desolation Row, and there’s a reputation roasting on an open fire. Santa Bob is coming to town.

Life likes its little jokes. Once upon a time – I’m guessing at the early 1970s – the NME ran a spoof alleging the appearance of yet another Bob Dylan bootleg.

With an admirably straight face, the writer claimed that the man was playing mind games, man.

Memory says the joke involved “the Voice of a Generation” recording a Christmas album entitled Snow On Highway 61. How we laughed.

Nobody does Dylan better than Dylan, of course. So here, many winters later, for our festive embrace, comes Christmas In The Heart, a “Columbia Christmas Recording”, no less.

Already you can hear the distant, self-righteous squawking known as the Dylan internet “community”. Betrayed again, suckers?

The literate ones are probably remembering Greil Marcus and his Rolling Stone review of Self Portrait, Dylan’s first foray into what we now call Americana, back in the mists of 1970. “What is this sh*t?” demanded the esteemed expert. Dylan sings show tunes, the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel? Imagine the reaction now. Dylan Does Perry Como? Near enough.

Either that, or he got a karaoke machine in his stocking last year. Christmas In The Heart is a wonderful piece of nonsense. Dylan may have lost his claim to be the oldest living artist to post a number one album – you don’t mess with Vera Lynn – but he at least promises to kill ­Cliff-Bloody-Richard’s chances for another year.

Not since Shane MacGowan re-invented Christmas with the death-song “Fairytale of New York” has an artistic choice seemed so counter-intuitive, so wilfully trivial, so right, and so daft. The daftness may be its chief virtue. Dylan invites you to wonder if there’s a joke, and if you’re getting it. Then he proceeds with a straight face to do the things that only great fame allows, things which seem, perversely but typically, to mock his fame.

Let’s be clear: Christmas In The Heart isn’t Blonde On Blonde. Nor – and I claim my trivia prize – is it Dylan’s first brush with the festive spirit. A song, or rather a monologue, entitled “Three Angels” on the album New Morning has been derided in some quarters for almost 40 years. I rather like it, but that’s me.

I’m so easily taken with Dylan’s ­impudence, in fact, that I can remember the little tale he wrote in 1968 for the sleeve of John Wesley Harding. “There were three kings and a jolly three too. The first one had a broken nose, the second a broken arm and the third was broke.” Hilarious, Bob.

There are people in the world, believe it or not, who pore over that sort of stuff. Not me, obviously. They take Dylan very seriously, and with very good reason. It breaks their hearts like stale breadsticks when he demands time off from all the ground-breaking, culture-forming, generation-making, truth-speaking savant roles they forever need him – and they really need him – to perform.

He seems to treasure a mixture of the commonplace and the procrustean, a volatile mix indeed. His Theme Time Radio Hour show, of which the Christmas album is an obvious result, has seen him investigating his own nostalgia through the medium he knows best. Listen and you get a musicological tour of American life, American history, and the invention called Bob Dylan. It amounts to an ­autobiography in music. It’s funny, too.

The current cliche in studious circles is that Dylan, now an elderly national treasure, is the quintessential American. He embodies the culture, they say, as surely as Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Sinatra, or Presley. His broadcasts certainly come from a deep knowledge of just about every form of music America has attempted, and of the thought processes, the poetry and the politics, the social conditions and cultural twists, that have made America the strange beast it is. So if Elvis could do Christmas albums without a second thought, why not the senior citizen of American art? All the money will go, if you are asking, to the hungry and homeless.

It is a Christmas album, too, beyond question. There is nothing “post-modern” about it, least of all in ironic quotation marks, and that makes it all the funnier. Dylan’s usual band do their usual expert stuff, but if you take away a voice composed of cinders and tar, the voice Tom Waits sold his soul for, this is a Bing Crosby record. The post-incendiary Dylan is a Bing fan: he hears America calling.

Still, there’s a “mixed voice” choir on Christmas In The Heart who sound as though they expect their next gig to be on a cruise ship, not a Bob Dylan album. They are cheesier than mature Brie. These people even “chime in”, sometimes with sleigh bells attached. Like their bandleader, they invite us to pull the other one.

An old man sings the songs of his childhood. He takes the manufactured simplicity of a fake festival and says that this has become the real, authentically-synthetic culture of real people. Meanwhile – or so you guess – an old man remembers the snowy Iron Range country where he was raised, born while the second world war was being fought, and launches into the demented polka, “Must Be Santa”.

Bob Dylan; “Must Be Santa”; a polka, crazed accordions and all: infantile. Yet it’s true; he does this; and it scatters cliches. Only Dylan could attempt nonsense in this way, with a good heart, serious but not even remotely serious. “Winter Wonderland”? “Here Comes Santa Claus”? This is hilarious, but no funnier – vocals aside – than all the other invented traditions of the traditional invented Christmas. Speaking personally, I’m in favour of hilarity at Christmas.

I could wonder, of course, why a man born Jewish, whose only other brush with organised faith involved born-again Christians, has tossed aside a life of critical acclaim and settled for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. But I won’t. That would involve asking what the born-twice have to do with ­Christmas, and hearing a word spoken against the sainted Judy Garland, and failing to see why great artists earn the right to be playful.

Bob Dylan Makes Fun Record Shock. Having spent time being mistaken for Woody Guthrie, or Rimbaud, or late Picasso, or Whitman, Frost and Kerouac, you too might feel in need of a break, or even a Christmas album. So here’s more trivia: Dylan’s nom de plume/guerre when he these days produces his own albums is “Jack Frost”. You would almost think he saw Christmas In The Heart coming.

Now he sings Cahn & Holt’s “The Christmas Blues” like a man building his own bar, drink by drink. He sings a truly weird thing called “Christmas Island” (with gratuitous “aloha”) as though Ry Cooder is waiting to be invented. He sings some Latin on “Adeste Fideles”, which is funny, and claims the “arrangement” too, which is funnier.

But when the talk turns to Americana, national identity, and the sense of cultural origin and roots, someone had to say: “There has to be a Christmas record”. It’s the poetry of the mundane and heartfelt. If it also includes a saucy Betty Page nostalgia pin-up and a Leonard Freed sax-playing Santa photograph in the package, so much the better. Dylan is utterly, as William Carlos Williams had it, in the American grain. Corny, corny at Christmas, corny to make you smile, is entirely American.

There is no British equivalent, perhaps because “British” has become tricky. Dylan the outsider has become Dylan the national monument, yet still as sardonic, as wilful, and as funny as ever. It is merely interesting that no-one in these islands could claim the same pre-eminence.

To strap yourself to a tree with roots you must first find your tree, then your roots. For better or ill, even lacking much in the way of protest songs, Dylan’s country has retained its wide-eyed, foolish and cohesive innocence. Who would have guessed?

Now, hush. There are fewer than three months to Christmas and ­America’s last poetic genius says “Hark!” Apparently, the heeerald anguls wish to sing.