I can imagine back in 1965, when A Charlie Brown Christmas first premiered, it was probably quite cutting edge to talk about feeling anything but joy during the Christmas season. Now it’s practically cliche to do so. It’s been a challenging week for me on many levels between getting over being sick this weekend and trying to get ready for Christmas. Today I finally just hit the wall and found myself stewing over quite a few things both Christmas related and not. I finished up the last of my Christmas shopping tonight and I did so with what has become the most-played Christmas album of the season – Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 2009 release, Come Darkness, Come Light.
I love this album because it is not cut from the same cloth that so many others seem to be. It is almost all Chapin originals, with the only moldy oldie traditional Christmas song being “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and that was an iTunes bonus track. So when you immerse yourself in it, you get songs you don’t usually hear. And leave it to Chapin to write a song that perfectly describes how I feel about the Christmas season. Don’t worry, I’m not one of those Christmas haters, I’m just perennially disappointed by it. I don’t even get that high of expectations but year after year, I’m always overwhelmed and harried and by the time it’s all said and done, I’m exhausted and left to try to pick up our tattered bank account and try to get back on track. I’ve always known that I wasn’t alone in these feelings, but in the song “Christmas Carol”, Carpenter manages to put into a five minute song those feelings without ever being maudlin or cliched, although you can imagine Charlie Brown relating to it just a little bit.
Let’s take this bit by bit. It starts out like this:
The week before Thanksgiving Day
This town puts up its old display
Streetlights hung with candy canes and bows
The earlier it gets each year
The scarcer is my Christmas cheer
I guess I just like taking these things slow
I really don’t remember much
Of Christmasses growing up
Except the year the Beatles came to play
On my record player that came from Sears
That White Album filled my ears
In 1968 on Christmas Day
With the exception of listening to the Beatles on a Christmas in 1968 (substitute listening to Madonna on a Christmas in 1988 and you’ll be more accurate), she could, as usual, be singing about my life. My record player probably even came from Sears! It’s those little details in her songs that make me love her as a songwriter.
I haven’t been to church since God knows when
I’m not someone who usually attends
Truth be told there’s just two wishes
On my list every Christmas
Peace on earth and a snow storm now and then
As a former Lutheran, I sometimes really miss church this time of year. Unitarianism at Christmas just doesn’t really cut it, and this year, I’m even a failed Unitarian since, like Chapin, I haven’t been to church since God knows when. While I like the inclusion and acceptance of Unitarianism, the changing of the lyrics of traditional Christmas carols so as not to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities really rubs me the wrong way. So as a church home during the holidays, it’s hard to get that same fix of anticipation that I remember as a kid, eagerly going to Advent services and participating in all the Christmas events the church had to offer.
But perhaps that’s the problem…
Because Christmas is for children’s joy
For every single girl and boy
That’s the truth we come to understand
But the memories that don’t let go
Like Beatles songs and falling snow
Can make us feel innocent again
I was telling someone not terribly long ago that I was really having a hard time dealing with Christmas year after year because it keeps on being a disappointment. Every year, I vow that I will feel Christmas cheer and find it in unexpected places or even just be on the lookout for it but it’s not long before I’m bogged down by travel plans and spending money I don’t necessarily have on things I don’t think people will like. Just once I’d really love to buy someone something that really surprises them. I always feel like I have to practically be told what to buy for Heidi, whereas she seems to surreptitiously take notes all year long and gets me something that I completely forgot that I wanted. No matter how hard I try, I can’t recapture that feeling of Christmas that I had as a kid, even though we were poor and sometimes Christmases were very very lean. I remember writing on the calendar when we would open our presents – we always did it early because we were always at my grandparents’ house for Christmas Eve and Day. One year when I was about Anna’s age, I woke up at my grandparents’ house around midnight on Christmas Eve and looked out the window, very much expecting to see Santa’s sleigh flying above the old farmstead. Obviously I didn’t see it, but I still believed. That easy belief is so hard to find anymore. I can’t even believe in God anymore. The easy and warm feeling of Christmas is as elusive to me as an adult as the surety of knowing that there is a divine being with a higher purpose.
But perhaps Chapin’s right. Maybe I just need to realize that childlike belief is just that – for children. Really, the only thing I wish for in life is that people would be kinder to each other. How hard is it just to be kind to someone? Clearly, with the way I was reacting to drivers tonight that I didn’t even know, it’s harder than I’d like to think it is. I want to find out that I have something in common with a conservative Republican or a blue-collar, Nascar watching guy. I want to not have to worry about whether or not differences in politics will be a deal breaker in new friendships and work relationships. Basically, I think that the kindness we can show each other can help to address the loneliness that many people feel, whether we’re willing to admit it to ourselves – let alone each other – as well as connecting us to the kid in all of us that still wants desperately to believe.
I really think that knowing and having an active conversation with the kid that lives on in each of us – whether they be excited or damaged or laughing or crying – is the key to living a truly fulfilled life. They just want to be taken care of and know that everything is okay and that Santa will show up again this year, even though they’ve not been as good as they should have been. There was one year when I was growing up that I remember really fearing that Santa would leave me no gifts because I was such a bad kid. A shard of that kid is still there, looking for the reassurance that the gifts will still be there, just like they were last year. If you listen closely and treat them with respect and kindness, it goes a long way toward satisfying that nagging sense of disappointment and disillusionment so many people feel.
She finishes the song off with hope.
Because peace will shine in me and you
From Bethlehem to Timbuktu
Even if the forecast is for rain
Or, as another of my favorites might say “everybody knows how life can get so twisted, but I won’t let it bring me down” – a song that will feature in an upcoming blog post. Perhaps if Charlie Brown had listened to a little Kylie, he’d have felt better too!
(I just got back from picking up Anna at a friend’s house. On the way home, we listened to “Put Your Hands Up” and it was alternately “Put Your Pop Bottles Up” – she had an empty pop bottle in her hand – or “Pull Your Pants Up.”)