(Above: Bummed Out Christmas (Rhino), one of the pieces of my collection.)
“What came first – the misery, or the music?”
This question, asked by Rob Gordon in High Fidelity (one of my all-time favorite films), is appropriate today. The Christmas season is not all snowflakes and candy canes for everyone. Depression escalates for some, while the stress and strain of increased spending, family commitments, and time management can turn anyone into Scrooge.
Might we making the season worse with some of what we’re turning to for entertainment? I got to thinking about a number of standard programming chestnuts that may not be helping the mood any.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – I remember singing this in a Christmas program in grade school. The version that we sang, though, was not the original. It had been sanitized and made more cheerful. No, the original, as performed by Judy Garland in Meet Me in Saint Louis, is a damned depressing song. The family’s moving, and nothing’s going to be the same, and Judy’s trying to make it just a little better. It could have been worse: the original lyrics as composed by Hugh Martin went like this:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past.”
In the words of Clark Griswold, “Holy shit, where’s the Tylenol?” Garland and the studio pressed for the re-write, which is what you heard in the movie. This was cleaned up further by the time I got to grade school – we were told to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough” instead of being told that “we’d muddle through somehow.” From an educational standpoint, we’d have been better off being given the coping skills.
“Blue Christmas” – There’s no hiding the ball on this one. Sure, it was a hit for Elvis, but it’s putting the subject of loneliness right out there in the shop window for everyone to see. (You’d never know it from this clip, with the happy, screaming women in it.) Anyone who’s ever gone through breakup or loss around the holidays likely doesn’t need this reminder, and I assure you that your neighborhood “All Christmas All The Time” station is beating this one to death for a constant reminder. (If they’re playing the awful Porky Pig version, that’s its own level of depressing.)
“It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way“, Jim Croce – While we’re on the subject of breakups, this jaunty little number does hide the ball a bit. This guy’s trying to get one more date out of the season, since “what we had should never have ended” and “it’s only right.” Let her go, man.
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” – Elvis did this one, too, as did many other performers, especially Frank and Bing. The song dates to 1943 and the war effort, of course: American GIs overseas would have much rather been home with friends and families, and instead could only be there “in their dreams.” In the context of servicemen, the song works. While we still have thousands of troops stationed around the world today – and the song is certainly still valid for them – we civilians also live in a very different way than we did in 1943. Families are spread across further distances and no longer live in a four-square-block area. Sometimes the inability to get to the dinner is weather, or the cost of travel, or logistics. (Every year I encounter a student who misses a major holiday due to the expense of travel and stays on campus.) I am sure this song provided comfort in 1943; today, not so much.
“The Christmas Shoes”, Newsong – How did I almost forget this one? There’s no warmer feeling for the season than a song, sung by a child, about how their mother is going to die any minute now and wants to look pretty for Jesus. I cannot fathom how this a) got greenlit, b) got airplay, and c) got tucked back into the Christmas rotation each year. All of these conditions were met. The only thing that saves this song for me is the horribly off-color parody by The Dan Band called “The Christmas Flip-Flop.” (There’s only one, since mama only has one leg.)
There are some non-standard examples as well. The Bummed Out Christmas album that Rhino put out several years ago includes such uplifting numbers such as “Christmas Eve Can Kill You” by the Everly Brothers and “Christmas in Vietnam” by Johnny and Jon. (The latter copy was shared by a Twitter feed I follow, @VietnamWarSongs . There are far, far more than you thought, and I recommend the follow if you are a 60s music fan.) I don’t list these in the pile simply because, well, you’ve got to seek them out this time of year. The others are more than likely playing in the background while you’re waiting in a long department store line questioning your gift-giving decisions and worrying about what dish you are making for the potluck. They’re much, much harder to escape.
Remember, above all else this season, to look in on your friends, family, and neighbors, and ask them how they’re doing. For some, it’s far from the most wonderful time of year, and the greatest gift that you can give them is compassion.