Warning: This video contains a lot of disturbing imagery.
I know I’m late with this post. Would you believe that trying to have Christmas with the tiny store of energy ME/CFS allows me caused me to run late on writing this? I knew you would.
I have a confession to make: I can’t stand Christmas music, and to tell the truth, I’m not so hot on Christmas in general either anymore.
Now that we’ve gotten all of you gasping at my Scrooge revelation (watch through 4:10, because the acid kicks in at 4:11) out of the way, let me explain.
Growing up, I did a great deal of choral singing. First at church, then in my elementary school choir, and I carried that pretty much all the way through high school. So what bearing does this have on Christmas? In a school choir, you start learning the music for the holiday show almost as soon as school starts in the fall, and you work on it five days a week for four months. And I loved my choral directors – they gave me an enormous gift in teaching me to sing – but they had a tendency to pick some awfully cheesy selections to inject some variety into the holiday program. For instance, I sang this in junior high, and I’m still waiting for the Christmas season when it doesn’t return unbidden and beat me over the head for several days:
Aaaaaaaargh. So if you’re in a choir, by the time Christmas arrives, you’re sick to death of it already, and after doing this every year for eight years, Christmas music was basically totally ruined for me. So that’s Christmas strike one.
Then, in my early 20s, I worked at Whole Foods for five years, most of that as a cheesemonger. Being a cheesemonger is miserable at Christmas, because your department is one of the ones that has the biggest increase in business, and it’s not as if you get five times the people looking for easy, everyday items like fresh mozzarella. It feels like nearly everyone who walks up to the counter says, “I need three cheeses for a party,” and has no idea what they want besides that. If I were smart, I would have given everyone the same three cheeses, but not being so, I didn’t really think of that until years later. There was always a point in the holiday season that I started fantasizing about standing on top of the cheese counter and just winging 1 kilo Bries into people’s carts, Frisbee style.
But the worst part of working retail at Christmastime is that the holiday music starts the day after Thanksgiving and runs until New Year’s Day. That means eight to ten hours a day of holiday cheer and enforced merriment, which, as the weeks roll on, starts to engender very un-holidaylike thoughts of doing violence to Santa, the reindeer, the poor innocent elves, or at the very least gunning down the executives of the Muzak corporation. As comparison, my favorite band for most of my Whole Foods years was emmet swimming, whose holiday song, in their usual depressive mode, is about being forced off the road due to weather and missing Christmas entirely:
So between choir and retail, I felt like I had had a lifetime’s worth of exposure to Christmas music by the time I was 25.
And then I got sick. When I got sick, we were living in California. My mom’s family is from Indiana, and my extended family all meet up there, in the ancestral homeland, for Christmas. Getting back to Indiana was manageable when we were living in Virginia (where I grew up), and even more manageable when we moved to Michigan (for Chimp’s work), but once we got to California and I got sick, I stopped being able to manage the trip back. If I’d just been sick, I’d probably have been able to swing it, but I was trying to hold onto my job, and that meant that any moment I wasn’t working – including over Christmas – I needed to be resting so I could continue working.
Chimp and I were stuck all alone in California together, where we were miserably friendless despite a lot of trying. Every year, we’d call Indiana on Christmas and get passed among a dozen-plus family members, and every year, after hanging up the phone, I would dissolve into tears.
Removing being with my extended family from my experience of Christmas turned my perception of the holiday from a joyful time of year full of togetherness and festivity into a month-long society-wide mass hysteria in which we all spend tons of money, eat too much, and wake up January 1 saying, “What have I done?” Don’t get me wrong – I take inordinate joy in delighting people with well-chosen gifts – but the togetherness always meant more than the presents to me, and not being able to see my family, there are times when I entertain the idea of giving up both giving and receiving gifts in order to knock down the stress and expense of December.
Then, the final blow: It was five years ago Christmas – 2007 – that I had the crash that ended the career I loved and left me bedridden. I’d always mostly recovered from crashes in a couple weeks before, or had at least gotten reasonably close to where I had been on the slow downhill slide the illness had me on, but this one was far worse than any of my previous crashes. So Christmas inevitably reminds me of that.
And because that crash figures so large in my recent experience of the holiday, Christmas has become even more a time I take stock of where I am as compared to 2007. (Thankfully, improved, though not substantially recovered.) Thus the John Lennon tune at the top of this post. That song is one of the few pieces of holiday music that I still enjoy. I enjoy it because there are absolutely no holiday cliches contained within it. No snow, no reindeer, no Santa, no nothing. You get a few bells for your money. Truthfully, it’s not a Christmas song – it’s an anti-war song using Christmas cover. And that’s probably a good deal of why I enjoy it.
I say I enjoy it – it does always make me cry. It makes me cry right off because of “…and what have you done?” That lyric is a bit of a splash of cold water in the middle of living, isn’t it? A reminder that no matter what we do, time is going by, and it yanks you right out of the frenzy of consumerism that Christmas can be and plunges you into the question of whether what you’ve accomplished since the last time you heard this song is of value to humanity and the world, and whether it’s of a piece with the spirit of the holiday and the goal of achieving peace in our time. What’s more peace on earth, goodwill toward men than that?
Put this song up against Paul McCartney’s execrably shallow “Wonderful Christmastime.” It’s not even a contest.
And I suppose that’s why the tears come. Not because I’m sick – this song made me cry long before I ever was! – but because no matter what the past year has contained, I’m reminded of all of the ways that I’ve fallen short of my idealism and of the things I wanted to achieve but didn’t. It prompts me to think about how I can redouble those efforts, whatever they might be, with the life I have.
This is the point in the blog post that you are not at all surprised when I tell you that the only Christmas movie or special I ever care about seeing again is It’s a Wonderful Life. Which also makes me bawl like a baby, because it hits all the same themes of reflecting on all the ways one person can make a difference in the world.
There are fewer of those ways than there used to be for me, and the ends I put them to are a bit different than they once were. But I will still take weeping over what we failed to do, what we can do, what we need to do, over any amount of tinsel and claymation.