Christmas, as we know, is infamous for escalating the level of depression among americans. it heightens loneliness, despair, and fear with its insistence that we all be jolly and love our neighbors and chuckle like a 1940s film santa. it excludes non-christians, throwing them a hanukkah bone and ignoring that hanukkah is a minor jewish holiday, not the year's biggest one. it tortures parents without the wherewithal to buy their kids the goodies advertised since october, all, as is the nature of advertising, promising a degree of fulfillment once imaged only in tales of the heavenly afterlife. it even promises snow on christmas day, a rarely met promise but a pretty one.
these are the negative christmas sadnesses. the further we can get from them, the better off we who are christmas lovers will be. but there is another side to christmas sadness that we need to embrace, without which our happiness is, at best, a little shallow. the feeling, and the rejection of it, are strikingly present in a popular song from 1944, which first appeared in a pleasantly fluffy film called Meet Me in Saint Louis. Judy Garland plays a turn-of-the-20th-century teenager in love with the boy next store. all is well until her father gets a better job, far away, and the family must move from its beloved home and friends, and from garland's beau. and it's almost christmas. so she sings, with all the garland wistfulness, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." In this version, she gamely tells us that 'next year all our troubles will be out of sight," and that 'someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow,' and that 'until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." Unfortunately, singers like frank sinatra and later barbra streisand got hold of the song and merried it up. in these later versions, from now on our troubles will be out of sight, through the years we all will be together, and there will be no more muddling through, just hanging stars on the highest boughs. anything negative just gets pushed aside like broken glass ornament.
but we need the sadness of christmas, as well as its joy; indeed, the absence of the former taints the latter. some other popular songs admit this: 'i'll have a blue christmas without you' [which my mother played frequently in the early 1970s when my brother was in vietnam]; 'i'll be home for christmas,' which sounds very happy until the last line, 'if only in my dreams.' then there is the 20th century folk hymn, 'i wonder as i wander...why jesus the savior was born for to die.' and that cracks it. the exalted central myth of christmas is the story of death mingled with life. that gorgeous babe in the manger exists solely for the purpose of dying, horribly, 33 years later. and we, celebrating that birth, are equally mortal. we are surrounded by the void of our beloved dead, our absent loved ones, our unmet dreams, and our own ultimate mortality.
dickens knew this. those who read a christmas carol and see only a treacly happy story miss the point. the happiness is there, all right. but so is the loss--all of it. marley makes that clear when he shows scrooge the suffering poor and the ghosts trying, too late, to help them. we cannot but know that tiny tim's survival comes out only through one man's personal conversion combined with a conveniently curable illness. scrooge had destroyed many lives along the way to his conversion, not least of all his own. [watch the quick-changing expressions on the face of alistair sim in the greatest film version of the book, and see decades of loss mingle with current joy.]
the secret to a full christmas lies in embracing the whole of the season, of the day. as dickens says in one of his essays, we must invite our beloved dead to join us, in the hope if not the faith that we will one day be reunited with them. we must sigh for our losses. and we must do the grand work of creating happiness, enough to carry us through the cold winter to come: the winter we will likely survive but possibly die from; the happiness we hold through chill fingers as it tries to escape us; the joy of that noble mother who dared to rejoice in her child's birth and death.