This morning Sting was on CBS, talking about his new winter season/Christmas record. I took an interest because I've been reading Walking on the Moon, a pretty good book on the Police. It charts the rise and fall of my adolescence—I went to high school right through the belly of the 80s, and apart from a brief departure into Rush, I managed to stay clear of most of the metal and new wave flotsam of the decade. Because of that history, I didn't change the channel. During the interview, Sting took a major departure from the standard guy-has-a-new-record feature, and he waxed briefly on Christmas. He pointed out that Christmas is not all "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." A lot of people get depressed over the holidays, which are so focused on home, hearth, friends, family and church. And when you don't have those things, it can get kind of bleak.
I haven't agreed with Sting (or bought one of his records) in years, but he nailed it for me. I'd carry it one step forward and say that the holidays can be hard for people who have disconnected from these kinds of relationships on purpose and live most of the year in peaceful isolation.
When my parents divorced and my sister and I started spending our Christmases in different houses, I started to understand that this holiday was joyous and that it also threw loneliness and isolation into high relief. The abundance of food and gifts during the holidays also serveed as a reminder that many are poor and hungry. So, while I was enjoying my presents and dinner at my father's place, I was also acutely aware that my mother was alone.
Because this all happened as I was coming into my late teens, I was naturally predisposed by my biochemistry to be moody and melancholy, but I saw this feeling was reflected across the boards outside the bounds my own self-obsession. This is when I fell in love with It's a Wonderful Life, because it really a dark film at its core. Jimmy Stewart is on his way to take his own life before he's given his visions of the world without him. This really is a great tonic for teen spirit.
Similarly, A Christmas Carol is about a man who is warned by a dead colleague to change his ways before he circles the drain of human misery and is lost forever. In high school I played Bob Crachit in a dramatized version of the play; it was the hardest role I ever did, because being believably kind and decent on stage is infinitely harder and more complex than being wretched or pathetic.
I've also noticed (and I'm not alone in this) that a lot of Christmas carols are unbelievably sad. "I'll be Home for Christmas" from 1943 reminds us how unbelievably sad it is to know that everyone else is together and you are not. This is a carol resigned to the fact that you'll be away, which is why it hit so close to the heart for so many of our troops during WWII.
"Blue Christmas" is pretty obvious, but the older I get the less this song seems like a gimmick (sorry Elvis, your version of this one blows) and the more this song crumples my heart like an empty paper cup. This guy is sitting at home or in a bar somewhere thinking about his girlfriend "doing all right" happy without him. This is the quintessential expression of misery.
And when those blue snowflakes start falling That's when those blue memories start calling You'll be doing all right, with your Christmas of white But I'll have a blue, blue, blue Christmas.
I have had my share of Christmases in this state. I much prefer the ones I have now, but this song is good for keeping my head in check.
Longfellow's civil war Christmas poem-turned-hymn is particularly full of despair. In most hymn books it has been dutifully cleaned up, striking two full verses:
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound the carols drowned Of peace on earth, good will to men.
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn, the households born Of peace on earth, good will to men.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from Vincente Minnelli's Meet me in St. Louis has been similarly flocked to hide its edge. I'd go so far as to argue that 99% of the people listening to and performing this carol have forgotten about the context of the song or its history. The original lyrics were deemed way too depressing for the film. Take a look at the original:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, Next year we may all be living in the past Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork, Next year we will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore, Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow, From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Despite the revisions, the song also became a favorite of troops serving overseas in WWII. I love the lines:
Through the years, we all will be together If the fates allow Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
Sinatra purged the last line from the song so it would be more jolly—this is where we get the "hang a shining star upon the highest bough" nonsense. There's a great NPR piece on this song from 2001 that deals with James Taylor's decision to put "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," in its full muddleness, into his own Christmas record.
All of this gets to the core of what Sting was saying in his interview on the normally bubbly CBS Sunday morning show. It was a nice leavening of the non-offensive programming of the morning: this piece was slotted between David Pogue's geek gadget list done in light verse and a Splenda-sweet piece on ugly Christmas Sweaters.
The culture has done the same thing to Christmas, I think. We've cleaned it up so that it better fits our need for economic stimulus and for treating bleak midwinter seasonal affective disorder.
Let's remember that the Christmas story goes like this: a couple of young parents-to-be are living in an occupied territory. The colonial presence has called for a census, so everyone has to go to their birth towns to be counted. All this is to expedite taxation. The pregnant lady has to ride a donkey. When they get to Bethlehem, there's no place to stay, so the pregnant lady has to sleep in a stable, which was most likely just a cave. She probably has the baby there without a midwife or any help. In a few days the king hears that some "new king" was supposedly born, so he starts killing all the babies. The parents go underground until the heat is off. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. The heat never tapers off.
But behind all that is the miracle. It's not on the surface. For me Christmas should remind us this is a sad and beautiful world—both things at the same time, perhaps not at even distinguishable from each other. This world is full of glitter and doom, an image I stole from the title of the latest Tom Waits record. He and I see eye to eye on this matter, think. So, I'll let him have the last word.