My closest friend in the world lay next to me a day after her son died and asked me to sing her a song. To my horror, I couldn't think of one. Finally she murmured, "Just do 'Jingle Bells,'" and so I did. That was the day I realized that Christmas songs have nothing to do with Christmas. They're signs of a familiar world implanted within us.
My friend needed a signal from the world she could barely remember, the world where the rest of us were still living. I was in danger of losing her, and "Jingle Bells" was all I had to save her for that moment. Remember life? Jingle all the way.
I didn't feel the sappy love when the Christmas songs started turning up this year. I tuned to the all-Christmas-music station the way I always do, but found only dissonance. Sitting in my car on the afternoon of November 27, the radio played the jaunty lines "Our cheeks are nice and rosy, and comfy cozy are we" while my phone pushed me the headline "Trump will 'do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews': Mosques get threatening letters—the Washington Post."
"You mean it's not the most wonderful time of the year?" my husband mocked.
But I have a 2-year-old son who loves to sing and dance. He's going to want and need those songs, I thought. How will I do this?
I found my answer in a Christmas song. It came one morning when the sky was still dark and I leaned into my car to turn on the ignition and reach over for the ice scraper on the floor. "For we need a little Christmas / Right this very minute / Candles in the window / Carols at the spinet."
"We Need a Little Christmas" is a song from the musical Mame. We hear it in the scene when the stock-market crash of 1929 has just hit Manhattan, and Mame and her young charge are surrounded by collapse.
I looked up its full lyrics, which begin with the words "Haul out the holly." Haul? Let's consider the verb. It's used to indicate heaviness ("It had to be hauled away") or effort ("That would be a haul"). Sprigs of holly should not need hauling. They're holly; they weigh a mitten. So the person doing the moving must be weakened, compromised.
"For I've grown a little leaner," Mame sings. "Grown a little colder. Grown a little sadder. Grown a little older."
Christmas is not a feeling in your heart, Andy Williams, you liar. Sometimes it's just a series of grudging actions all trying to power one Hail Mary pass at letting nothing you dismay.
"Put up the tree before my spirit falls again," Mame hurries.
I've heard that song a hundred times and never noticed before how frantic it is, how desperate. "Right this very minute"? That's an order. That's the phrase spoken by a mother who's not having it. Christmas must be forced.
In the Johnny Mathis version on the radio that morning, the tempo is downright galloping, sprinting to stay ahead of a hounding foul mood. The song's compensatory hyperactive bouncing is decked by deranged flourishes of high wind instruments—the musical equivalent of the guy on the corner jumping around waving the sign. Wow, this song is faking it hard.
Fake it till you make it is a serious piece of useful wisdom in spite of its facile deployment on twee "ladies" products at gift stores. Sometimes—particularly despair-times—faking it is the only alternative to the void. If you waited until you felt like doing something, you'd never act, so you... sing that it's the most wonderful time of the year through your lying teeth.
So this year, I'm doing the acts. Tree. Ornaments. Songs. The cultural trappings of Christmas are not an outer manifestation of an inner reality. They're all there is, and sometimes they manage, through being shared or remembered, to spark a flash of joy here and there. String a few flashes together and that's doing better than the apes.
As I find typical of parenting, what at first seems like it's about the child is actually the parent's projection of her own stuff. My 2 year old, it turns out, is oblivious. That's what it means to be 2. Seasonal yearnings and wreckages are not his concern.
At day care he is, however, evidently learning Christmas songs. We discovered this when he began yelling "Christmas songs!" at us. We thought we would be able to satisfy him, but no. Now we respond by crooning, in a panicky fashion resembling the rapid changing of television channels (or, you know, Mame), every song we can think of that he could possibly have learned at day care. Occasionally he tries to help us by shouting a few lyrics that he remembers—"Ring-a-ling!"—but even if we pivot at once to "Silver Bells," he soon resorts to repeating his original, enigmatic demand. What he means by "Christmas songs!" we may never know.
Thus far this season, he has made only one discernible discernment. He perked up to the sweet classic recording of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," made by Gene Autry in 1949, and when it ended and the stupid throbbing of Paul McCartney's 1979 "Wonderful Christmastime" kicked in, he shrieked, "Music off!"
He was right, of course. We are not simply having a wonderful Christmastime. Which is precisely why we need a little Christmas.