Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas During Troubled Times---Wednesday Journal

"It's coming on Christmas

They're cutting down trees

They're putting up reindeer 

And singing songs of joy and peace

Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on..."

This lyric from Joni Mitchell's classic, "River", speaks for so many people during Christmas season. How many of us haven't wished we could escape what seems to be the forced sense of merriment around us?  There are many personal reasons why someone would not feel enthused about participating in Christmas celebrations, or may feel unable to enjoy the traditions that were a source of comfort and happiness before.

What makes it more difficult is that we are expected to feel upbeat and merry. Some radio stations start their 24-hour carol-thons before Thanksgiving, and trees and decorations fill store shelves by Halloween.  Television ads warn us that we must shop now to get best the deals (spend money to save money!) We somehow are made to feel deficient if we are unable to purchase the latest gadgets, toys, or other popular items, because we can't afford them or we haven't the time. 

Perhaps we have suffered traumatic holidays in our past, due to family squabbles or resentments.  Maybe friends have turned their backs on us. Maybe we are questioning our faith, and the very foundations of the holiday.  Maybe we have a loved one who is ill or disabled, and few resources or time to  provide care. Perhaps we have experienced the death of friends, family members or pets during the past year.  Maybe we are overextended at work or need to do several jobs to make ends meet.  Or, more likely, a possible job loss has thrown our life into disarray, and we are caught in the vortex of keeping families together, saving our homes, and providing for basic needs.

Or, perhaps a romantic relationship has come to a bittersweet end.  That explained the melancholy of Joni Mitchell's narrator in "River", which was featured in her 1971 album, appropriately titled "Blue".  The song has, in the last several years, become something of a modern seasonal classic, covered by singers such as Tori Amos, Betty Buckley, Rosanne Cash, Sawn Colvin, Allison Crowe, Herbie Hancock, Indigo Girls, k.d. lang, Barry Manilow, Aimee Mann, Sarah McLachlan, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and Corinne Bailey Rae. 

It is a sad song but oddly comforting. Mitchell articulates and validates our desire to drop out of the melee for a bit of calm and meditation. What an attractive fantasy it is indeed, to conjure a river on which to skate to sanity and quiet isolation. But most of us tough it out, and cheerfully keep a brave face to preserve the hopeful anticipation for the sake of the kids in our midst;  or for those who genuinely wish us well and derive happiness from our presence in their celebrations.  To be able to do this is a form of giving as well.

A lot of people are hurting.  Smiles and hugs can't pay bills, or get folks out of difficult employment or legal situations, or return our loved ones to us.  But they do create energy; a sincere smile or word of encouragement, to one who is discouraged, sad, or anxious at this time of year, is like a natural caffiene boost, a warmth out of the cold, a reason to live another day. 


There is another reason why we might be reluctant to wholeheartedly get into the spirit of celebration at Christmastime.

It is that the world seems to be so precarious, so unenlightened, so dangerous, so unforgiving.  We hear a never-ending string of news stories about wars in the middle east; the threat of terror; the the incompetence of our leaders to create important legislation; the persecution of  sexual minorities;  the terrible mistreatment and living conditions of the world's most vulnerable; the corruption of  our politicians corporations, "charitable groups",and religious organizations; and the physical destruction of our earth and its species.  We are polarized, and always seem to be in conflict.  What business, then, do we have in celebrating? 

At such a time it's good to find a welcome bit of perspective.  While we live in a world that seems on the verge of exploding, the 1960s were a time of upheaval and anxiety; those who lived then were sure that the world would not survive.  The disparity between what the peace and wonderment of Christmas is supposed to be, and the reality of the world that flies in the face of Christmas spirit, is perfectly captured in a recording from that period. 

For me, that perspective comes in the form of a track in the 1966 album "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme". The track is titled, "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night".

It is a simple and devastating concept. Under the soft and peaceful rendition of "Silent Night" sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, we hear an actual news broadcast from August 3, 1966.  I was lucky to find the text of that broadcast:

This is the early evening edition of the news.

The recent fight in the House of Representatives was over the open housing section of the Civil Rights Bill. Brought traditional enemies together but it left the defenders of the measure without the votes of their strongest supporters. President Johnson originally proposed an outright ban covering discrimination by everyone for every type of housing but it had no chance from the start and everyone in Congress knew it. A compromise was painfully worked out in the House Judiciary Committee.

In Los Angeles today comedian Lenny Bruce died of what was believed to be an overdoes of narcotics. Bruce was 42 years old.

Dr. Martin Luther King says he does not intend to cancel plans for an open housing march Sunday into the Chicago suburb of Cicero. Cook County Sheriff Richard Ogleby asked King to call off the march and the police in Cicero said they would ask the National Guard to be called out if it is held.
King, now in Atlanta, Georgia, plans to return to Chicago Tuesday.

In Chicago Richard Speck, accused murderer of nine student nurses, was brought before a grand jury today for indictment. The nurses were found stabbed an strangled in their Chicago apartment.

In Washington the atmosphere was tense today as a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American activities continued it's probe into anti- Viet nam war protests. Demonstrators were forcibly evicted from the hearings when they began chanting anti-war slogans.

Former Vice-President Richard Nixon says that unless there is a substantial increase in the present war effort in Viet nam, the U.S. should look forward to five more years of war. In a speech before the Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in New York, Nixon also said opposition to the war in this country is the greatest single weapon working against the U.S.

That's the 7 o'clock edition of the news,

Evey era has its seemingly unsolvable, apocalyptic problems.  But, 43 years after this news broadcast, we have managed to survive.  Call me naive, or better yet, guardedly optimistic, but I think we will survive again. Give a smile and some encouragement to someone you know who is hurting--offer more if you can--. 

If you are reading this and you yourself  are hurting, tell your story.  

Let's resolve to pull together and make some positive changes happen in 2010.

I'll be back on Saturday.



  1. Have a wonderful and safe Holiday Tom! Love the post.

  2. Dave, it is so good to have you visit here. I appreciate your comments always. I hope you had a wonderful holiday. ~Tom

  3. A really awesome post, Tom! You really hit the nail on the head with regards to being emotionally overwhelmed at Christmastime. So many people are not living the made-for-TV good life and dealing instead with issues and problems that make the season just another reason to feel frustration and disappointment. The 7 O'Clock News/Silent Night lyrics are such a poignant example of the sorrow that exists in the world, even at Christmastime, and yet the Silent Night lyrics in the background seem to inspire hope for a better future despite the surrounding calamity. Powerfully done!

    Oh, and the pic of Maggie? Priceless!