Saturday, December 25, 2010

For Those Who Are Not So Merry

Christmas has a way of getting complicated as we grow older. The colorful lights and beaming faces of children increasingly compete with memories of people and times that once were and are no more. Forced cheerfulness wears on a person. Today's blog is a soundtrack for all the people who want to sneak off into a corner and grieve a little while. (Note: I have not included Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" because, frankly, it's a pretty bouncy tune.)

For me, Joni Mitchell's "River" says everything you need to know about holiday loneliness and regrets.

When I was young, "O Holy Night" always had a special meaning in our house. Whenever the choir came to the line "Fall on your knees," my mother would cry. We lost our mother 24 years ago, and now my sisters and I cry when we hear it. This version by the King's Singers is not the one my mother cried to, but I think she would have liked it.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a song that pretends to be happy. If you listen to this lovely version by Frank Sinatra, you almost miss the underlying sadness. The original version by Judy Garland makes it obvious. Go here for the video.

Bonus: Go here to listen to Tony Bennett's great version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" over scenes of Cary Grant and Loretta Young in The Bishop's Wife.

One last tune, and it's not about Christmas. It's "Kind of Blue" — the Miles Davis classic performed here with John Coltrane. It's the music I write to, so while it is a bit blue, to me it ultimately represents creation and life.

Have yourself as merry a Christmas as you can muster.


  1. Oh man, Michele... you really nailed it. Although I'm finding my first Christmas alone in 26 years strangely calming. The solitude is almost soothing in a way. And I'm not actually alone. My cat, Peepee, is here celebrating with me. She sucks at singing carols. But she's very amusing decorating the tree :)
    Thanks for all you've added to my daily life this year. I appreciate your thoughtful posts and refreshingly clear, direct voice! ( Much good feelings AROUND this ;) )

  2. I agree, Walt. Solitude can be soothing. Still, I'm glad you have your furry friend Peepee (what a name!) and your many online friends for company. It's been a pleasure getting to know you and your generous spirit.

  3. Beautiful Michele. The last one brings it all together. Miles isn't pandering to a holiday. He's just looking to distill essence into quiet. It's unreal.

    All the commercial holidays get old, because at some point we leave the acquiring behind and look to shed what isn't essential. Fitting that that was Miles' genius.

  4. To "distill essence into quiet." What a great and true description. It's also a fine objective for a life. Have a wonderful day with your family.

  5. Wonderful music!

    You have such a gift, Michele, for finding the significances in music. I lost my connection to music after a difficult period in my life. I think the emotions that music engendered were for a while too painful. I'm working to reestablish musical connection by going to the opera, and the symphony, and by listening to music at home. I tend to think in silent poems or stories, though I do read out loud to myself and to others, and while that does have a certain artful sound, music adds a very different neurological richness to our lives that I would like to feel again.

    My mother, who tends toward melancholy anyway, lost her dad on Christmas when she was 20. Though she tried to hide it from her family with ritual perfections, she was sad on Christmas, and it is a day I associate with, in part, quiet, unspoken sorrow.

    I too, like Walt, am alone this Christmas. I chose to stay home alone until this evening when I attend a dinner party with friends. For the first time in a few years I find that I am most contented today.

    And Michele, I share your mom's emotional reaction to O Holy Night. As a girl I was the choir's soloist for O Holy Night and still remember the bittersweet beauty of those words, and the deep physical reaction that singing them out loud—in a space full of candles and flowers and people—gave me. (I think of the words of O Holy Night and, as a lapsed Catholic, I wonder: is Christmas melancholy in part because Christ is born to die not after a lifetime, but in the few months between December and Easter?)

    Michele, it is such a pleasure to be coming to know you and to see the world with your sensitive intelligence. Your words touch me and make me think.

    When I woke up this morning, rather than a song of any kind, James Wright's poem Two Hangovers was in my head. Here are his words for your enjoyment:

    Merry Christmas, however you choose to honor the day.

  6. Katherine, to spend Christmas day alone can be a fine thing. To end it with a meal surrounded by friends is also fine. But for someone who was once the choir soloist to lose her attachment to music — well, that strikes me as a terrible loss.

    Some years ago my life was so overstuffed with needy people and obligations, it crowded music out. I willed music back into my life, starting with the first music I loved: the Gregorian chant we sang at high mass. Maybe something equally old and elemental will help you build a new bridge. I hope so.

    That James Wright poem got me going on a James Wright bender. has a few audio files of him reading his work. I always find it thrilling to hear a poet read his own words. If you'd like to hear him, this is the link:

    Have a lovely dinner, Katherine. Getting to know you has been a pleasure for me, too.

  7. Michele - I feel the darkness very deeply during the Christmas holiday season and have to make an effort to find the essence of gratitude that helps me to make the most of every day. It doesn't come from the losses which I have been forced to navigate but from what I have not yet lived.

  8. Andrea, I hope today has found you focused on your future. As I suspect you know, the ability to look forward is the thing that gets you from a bad today to a better tomorrow. Be well.