Christmas used to be my favorite time of year. As a kid, I would look forward to it with the same excitement and singular focus of any child, and would count down the days by marking the milestones of the season: the appearance of Santa at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade, the deluge of advertisements on TV, seeing the streetlamp posts adorned with garland, the houses festooned with lights, the release from school for vacation, and finally, the molasses-like march of the last two or three days until the glory of Christmas Eve.
I remember the sense of change in the air on the 24th of December, where I would see the world through a lens of warmth and delight that seemed to make everything appear brighter, more colorful, and full of potential. Christmas Eve was the greatest single day of the year because of that excitement – like the best part of a roller coaster is that high peak after the long climb up the track, until just before the plunge into heart-racing thrills, turns and loops. Sure the thrills, turns and loops are fun, but it’s over so fast – it’s the build up, the anticipation, the preparation for what’s ahead that makes it so sweet.
As an adult, I continued to experience that same sense of wonder, excitement, and hope every year, and Christmas Eve was even more magical when I had kids of my own with whom to share it. Seeing it through their eyes was like “Being A Kid: The Sequel”, and I was the Dad who would go overboard with the lights and the decorations and the music and the food and the gifts. I never went Full Griswold, but I was certainly in my element as a Christmas Dad.
This year is not my first Christmas alone, so there’s something to be thankful for there: I’ve been through it before and thus know I can get through it. Last year, though, Christmas came just a couple months after I moved out of my home and started life over, and looking back on it, I think I might have still been in some form of numb shock then. I was certainly going through the motions for the sake of my kids, who were amazing little troopers and did their best to hold it together during that holiday.
I had told myself that I was going to make this Christmas celebration more like the ones we knew in the past [i.e. more jolly than humbug], because for the most part I’m in a much different place than I was last year. I’ve been feeling good, loving life, and genuinely happy, and thus I felt able to give the holiday my total effort once more. I found myself making plans for “Christmas: The Return” and smiling with a bit of hope once more.
Then something happened. It might have been the Christmas ornaments for the tree that my kids decorated with the fervor of pirates opening a treasure chest – taking each one out, unwrapping the tissue paper from it and going “Oh, I remember this one!” and gleefully placing it on the same branch with the previous two ornaments. They are exuberant tree decorators, my kids, but they are not aware of the finer points of balance and distribution when it comes to ornament placement. [It seems an odd tradition now that I think about it, hauling a severed tree into your home and throwing a bunch of lights and baubles on it. We do some strange things in the name of tradition.]
Christmas tree ornaments are charged with memories of years gone by, and this week it occurred to me that every year we borrow from Dickens and we adorn our trees with the ghosts of Christmas past. I first sensed this many years ago, on the Christmas after my brother died, when we hung his ornaments on our mom’s tree. But that year, for me, the sadness was balanced out with the joy of a new love with whom I was spending my first Christmas. I spent sixteen more Christmases in that relationship, and lots of ornaments were collected over those years. Lots of memories made. Lots of ghosts.
So it might have been the ornaments that turned my excitement for this Christmas into an emotional grudge match between hope and loss. Or, it might have been the smells of the candles and scented oils that are all over our holiday gear; with smell being the sense most closely associated with memory, it’s likely that had something to do with it.
But I think more than anything else, it’s the music that brings a sense of sadness to my holiday heart. There are traditional Christmas carols that are pure fun and joy and are completely harmless: “Jingle Bells”, “The 12 Days of Christmas”, “Winter Wonderland” – timeless standards that call to mind the festive spirit of the holidays, and thus only use their power for Good. These are fine songs and I experience no negative side effects with them.
However, there are other songs, mostly modern songs, which seem to have the sole purpose of driving out the silver and gold and bringing in the blue. Songs that are actually good tunes but have the same result of casting a sad shadow on the holiday. There must be money in melancholy, because every year it seems that there are new songs created specifically to bring the nostalgic and the bittersweet to mind.
My friend Rich would remind me of the difference between sadness and disappointment, and points out that I often confuse the two. Sadness indicates a loss, while disappointment indicates not having something I want. I think there’s a little of both at hand here, for while I certainly admit that I don’t have everything I would want, I also acknowledge I have experienced loss. It’s the memory of these things that the music brings to mind.
They say a joy shared is doubled, and a burden shared is halved. In an effort to lessen the weight of the holiday funk I’m in, I am sharing some of the songs that have been the biggest contributors to it. Why, I’m not sure – it just seems that speaking aloud about them might file down some of their sharp edges. So without further ado, here are some of the Christmas selections that are on my current list of Songs of Holiday Heartache.
This song makes me think of my brothers – the one still on earth and the one who has moved on – and my sister. It’s a simple song that I envision Mr. Legend singing at a piano with the Stephens family gathered around, singing about the Christmases that only exist in memory.
Oh, do you remember / when the family was everything?
Oh, do you remember / it was so long ago and so much has changed
I wanna go back / wanna go back to those simple days
I wanna go back / but now we’ve grown and gone our separate ways
Times is hard / and things are a changin’
I pray to God / that we can remain the same
All I’m trying to say is our love don’t have to change
No it don’t have to change
I can’t listen to this song without thinking about the days when we were four siblings who didn’t realize how blessed we were to get to spend Christmas together.
“Red Ribbon Foxes” – A Fine Frenzy
This song haunts me with its wintery imagery and poetic lyrics that –for me- conjure images of cold landscapes and a longing for the peace that is searched for but cannot be found when one looks for it elsewhere.
There’s snow on your collar, boy / There’s snow on the bench
There’s snow on the sleeping grave / And the crooked fence
And if you’ve been crying / With my hand on my chest
I swear I’ll never tell
The town is aglow with lights / The carolers sing
You sister won’t sleep tonight / For the morning brings
That old happy Christmas / You came here to find it
I did as well
For love doesn’t come in boxes / Nor truth in a crowded shop
Those red ribbon foxes are not so easy caught
But the search it never stops
I hear this song and for some reason I see frost-covered fields and bare trees passing by as seen from a car window. I’m driving somewhere – to where is undetermined, but it feels like someplace from long ago.
“Christmas Song” – Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds
This is such a sweet, restrained song of acoustic guitars and a lyrical telling of the story of Christ’s life. It has none of the excesses of some Christmas songs, just a simple message of love.
She was his girl, he was her boyfriend / Soon to be his wife, make him her husband
A surprise on the way, any day, any day / One healthy little giggling, dribbling baby boy
The Wise Men came, three made their way / To shower him with love while he lay in the hay
Shower him with love, love, love
Love, love was all around
For some reason, it’s the end of the song that always gets me, for it resonates with me in ways I don’t fully understand. Jesus asking of God
Father up above, / Why in all this anger do you fill me up with love?
Love, love, love
Love, love was all around
Father up above, / Why in all this hatred do you fill me up with love?
Fill me love, love, yeah
Love, love, and the blood of our children all around
I suspect it has to do with the fact that no matter what darkness comes to me, I still find love at my core, even when it would be understandable –easier, even– not to. I guess I don’t need to know why.
“The Heartache Can Wait” – Brandi Carlile
There’s something about the piano, cello, and jingle bells at the beginning of this song that just creates an instant lump in my throat.
You’re talking about leaving / It’s right about Christmas time
Thinking about moving on / I think I might die inside
I’m thinking about years gone by / I’m thinking about church at midnight
I’m thinking about letting go / I think that might finally be alright
But this is where we shine
Silver bells and open fire / And songs we used to sing
One more chance to be inspired / Is what I’m offering
If love is not enough / Then stay with me because
The heartache can wait
Anyone who has gone through Christmas after a break-up they did not want can probably identify with that one.
“A Great Big Sled” – The Killers
This rock tune seems to use lots of loud guitars and drums to disguise an alt-rock Christmas song that has, at its heart, a wish to escape the burdens of the grown-up world and return to the innocent fun of the childhood Christmas.
I want to roll around like a kid in the snow / I want to re-learn what I already know
Just let me take flight dressed in red / through the night on a great big sled
I want to wish you merry Christmas (Ho Ho Ho)
Now they boys are all grown up / And they’re working their fingers to the bone
They go around chasing them girls on the weekend / You know they still can’t be alone
I’ve been racking my brain with thoughts of peace and love
How on earth did we get so mixed up?/ I pray to god it don’t last a long time…
I want to wish you merry Christmas (can’t do that)
I suspect a lot of men my age have similar thoughts at this time of year.
While I get the feeling that this one was written from the standpoint of someone mourning a lost lover, it seems to apply to any love who has passed on. It makes me think of everyone I have ever loved who is no longer with us, but especially those with whom I have shared Christmas. My brother Steven. My stepdad Harry. My friend Julie. More and all.
Oh I miss you now, my love / Merry Christmas, merry Christmas,
Merry Christmas, my love
Sense of joy fills the air / And I daydream and I stare
Up at the tree and I see / Your star up there
And this is how I see you / In the snow on Christmas morning
Love and happiness surround you / As you throw your arms up to the sky
I keep this moment by and by
I never used to understand why people would say they “hate” the holidays. It seemed unfathomable to me that anyone could not love this time of year. Now I understand that most, if not all, of these people were not talking about hatred for Christmas itself, but for the feelings they experience during the Christmas season. It is hard for some people to make it through this time of year with “joy”, “peace”, and “hope”, despite being surrounded by reminders of these things.
While I have previously written on this blog about how we all create our own experience, I must admit that it is hard to create the experience of joy in the here-and-now when there are so many things –sights, smells, and songs—that take me back to the there-and-then. There are just moments where I experience a feeling that isn’t joy. It’s okay. It’s only my grandiosity that says I “should” feel a certain way at a certain time (as if I can dictate these things to fit my will). I also know that everything is impermanent – this too shall pass. And it makes the moments when I am truly living in the present that much more special – like times when I see the delight and joy in my kids’ faces and feel the real Spirit of the season – love.
So the indicated action for me, during those times when I am feeling the sadness that comes and goes this holiday season, is simple: just watch the blinking lights — and want what I’ve got.
If you are feeling the joy of Christmas and reveling in the festivity of this time of year, I wish you all the ‘merry’ you can handle, and I celebrate your happiness. If you are feeling sorrow and just waiting for the New Year to start, I wish you all the peace that you deserve, and I honor your sadness. All are welcome.
Oh – and if you’re feeling a little annoyed with my song selection, to you I say: Just be grateful that there are no “Barking Dogs” or “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” in the playlist. Sure, those might also bring tears, but so does nerve gas.
I may get to post another entry here before the holiday (hey, like maybe one that features my favorite joyful holiday songs!), but in the event that I don’t (and let’s face it – as a single Dad at Christmastime, odds are pretty good that I won’t get back here before then), I want to wish everyone a holiday that is however you want it to be – merry and bright; sad and dark; apathetic and beige – whatever works for you.
And thanks for your continued readership. May your New Year be one of peace and good fortune.