I love Christmas. I know all the reasons for not liking it — excess and forced jollity, and those are the reasons I hate New Year’s — but to me it’s the perfect seasonal holiday. It’s full of lights and greenery when those things are in short supply. It comes at the darkest part of the year when we’re turning back toward the light. I like that it has a baby, and animals, and magical kings from the Orient and cookies and layers and layers of tradition — pagan and medieval European and Victorian. I like that while it involves going out to myriad Christmas parties, at that at the very heart of it you mostly get to stay home. I love the way no matter how people fight against it, finally, on those days between Christmas and at least New Year’s, it’s as if the whole world has fallen off a cliff. No one can reasonably expect you to do anything over Christmas break. I like that it ends with Epiphany. I like that it causes you to bring a tree into your house, like an enormous cut flower. I love that its colors are red and green. I love that part of the tradition is singing carols, and that the carols range from medieval to modern.
I remember learning all the words to “Jingle Bells” when I was in kindergarten, maybe, and feeling very proud of myself, and also very pleased to be singing a song that people must have sung in the days before cars, when there existed very clear vocabulary regarding exactly what sort of sleigh they were in. It was a link to the past. When I was 5, my mother married a man with 5 children and our Christmas traditions had to merge, and a song that they sang, which I had never heard before but liked, similarly, for its historical information, was “Here we come a-wassailing.” I didn’t really like “Deck the Halls,” I suspected it was phoney, but my stepbrother’s class sang it and I learned a clever harmony for the “fa la la la la” part of which I was quite proud. (Ours is a family that harmonizes “Happy Birthday.”) Later, my stepsister liked to sing Silver Bells, which I think had a similarly fun harmony, but which I rejected as too modern. I favored “Good King Wenceslaus” and “O come o come Emmanuel.”
My mother loves Christmas, too, which may be partly why I do, and she had a good selection of Christmas albums which we played a lot. I remember that each year a different carol would catch my attention and I would spend the season learning it. I sang in a choir for the Christmas party at work one year and learned “In the deep midwinter,” which I still love. Another year, an internet friend sent me a CD of modern Christmas songs, which I think worked on my family the way my mother’s Christmas albums worked on me. “Baby, it’s cold outside,” “Sugar, rum, cherry,” “Christmas night in Harlem,” “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and especially “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas” became favorites, and I think it was probably that year that we first watched “Meet me in Saint Louis,” which cemented “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as the carol, or song, really, of the year.
“Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” although undoubtedly modern, has what all the best carols have, which is some sadness. A lot of carols, “O come o come Emmanuel” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child” — are in a minor key, and they’re always balancing this fallen world with hope in the form of a little baby, for whom you know painful things are destined. I’m not a religious person, but it’s a powerful metaphor. “Have yourself” has this sadness in spades. If you remember the movie, Esther (Judy Garland) sings it to her sister Tootie on Christmas Eve, when Tootie has broken down in sadness over the family’s imminent move from St. Louis, which, in the eyes of this family, is the most glorious place in the world, and also the place that they know and where they are known. It always makes me cry. In the movie, the father relents and the family does not leave Saint Louis. In real life, of course, you know they would. I think it resonates for me because I moved often as a child. But that’s how life is — things end and you move on. It was my daughter M’s favorite song and movie, too, and I think I also like it because it has to do with raising children. “Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow.” Sometimes the fates do not allow. Children do go off and leave you, as they should. This year, we all will be together, but is it perhaps the last year? The song has a feeling of putting on a brave face — that things perhaps are not always as gay as we wish. It touches the sadness that’s right there, in the dark.
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I didn’t move as a child, and my children have grown up without ever moving. So you have explained to me a little of why someone might like that song, even though I never have before.
We moved from a house very much like that St Louis house, except it was in Oak Park, IL. To, in fact, Connecticut.
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“Merry Little” was on my list – esp. with the words as they are in the original, which to me is so true.
Initially the line was supposed to be, “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 may all be living in New York” which Garland said was too depressing to sing to a child. 🙂
Descants are the only kind of harmony I could do until a few years ago. Harmony takes concentration! Wow!
I was going to say, too depressing to sing to anyone, but then I thought of Harriet —
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Jeanne, I didn’t realize you never moved as a child. Or that your children hadn’t either. Readersguide’s childhood is a little more similar to mine — all those blendings of families, and God knows where you’ll be each Christmas.
I love that scene and that song and it makes me weep like a baby every year. But that homesickness and longing is part of the season for me too, this year more than ever.
I loved your explanation of why you like Christmas. It’s one of the best I’ve seen.
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i never moved. well, when i was 11, we moved around the block to the house that…well, is about to be sold. 40 years in that house – 35 good years. and christmas? well, it was just the best, just like your first paragraph.
Thank you for highlighting how perfect the minor key songs are for this season and time of year. This Friday we have our annual “Blue Christmas” service, which always ends on a minor key, which is its own kind of perfection. And it doesn’t really matter whether there’s been a great national tragedy or not, a minor key is essential to this time of year.
I agree —
It reminds me of your comment abut a carol rushing from birth to humiliation and death — somehow a lot of them do that. That’s really part of it, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s not just part of it. I think it’s the axis on which we spin. And I tend to think that the forced cheeriness of the season is an attempt to counter that awful but simple truth. Sometimes we “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” other times we manage maniacal laughter and rambunctious singing. It’s all of a piece.
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