It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but not so much at my house. Christmas ornaments, being shiny, fragile, all about aesthetics, often expensive, and essentially useless, are the kind of thing I’m simpatico with, but this year I didn’t even put the tree up, so I will not be hanging that shining star upon the highest bough any time soon. I thought the weekend after Thanksgiving was too soon, since we still had a week of November to go, and then I came down with The Head Cold That Would Not Die on top of everything else, and it seemed that my little energy and less time should be directed elsewhere, and the moment slipped by. I don’t even get a real tree, which requires coordinating efforts with someone who can drive; I just lug the box up from the basement and put the tree together. Only God can make a tree my ass. (It turns out I’m allergic to pine anyway. I once washed the kitchen floor with Pinesol and couldn’t breathe in there for a week afterwards. Who knew it actually contained pine?)
So an artificial tree is definitely the way for me to go, and artificial seems suited to the season anyway, though this summer I did discover the joy of chopping down real trees. I suddenly noticed that the industrious squirrels had planted a walnut tree by the side wall and, under cover of the lemon tree, it had gotten so tall it blocked the light from my apricot trees. I could either spend $25 on an axe now or put off dealing with it and spend hundreds of dollars later for professional tree removal. Down I went to Home Depot and got my axe, and I discovered my inner pioneer. If I didn’t love trees so much I’d be on a bare lot right now. Some of my friends had a very odd reaction to the axe. I would mention buying it as one of several things I had been up to lately, but that’s the only thing they would mention in their replies, with strangely hostile comedy. I don’t know why exactly. Either it conjured up an image of can-do masculinity not usually associated with me (and you know how people love to keep others in their niches), or they just did not like the idea of me with sharp weapons to hand.
Until three days before Christmas, when I received another from a depressed friend, I had received exactly one card, though I have to say it was from the people I’ve had the deepest, most prolonged relationship with this year – my plumbers. Santa is flying through the air, his sleigh laden with sinks, hot water heaters, and other plumbing paraphernalia – the artist was too tasteful to include a toilet, but euphemistically in its place is a line for snaking out the sewer pipes, a sight I became all too familiar with this year. My traditional Christmas wheat seeds didn’t sprout, except for one or two sickly pale sprouts, which clearly were not going to stand up to the gummy mold taking over the bowl. So there was no greenery to decorate the nativity scene, which stayed boxed anyway. Even Macy's Holiday Lane, with which I have a childish fascination, ended up disappointing me; by the time I got there ready to buy, all the Eric Cartman ornaments were gone, and so was most everything else. The mess around here is depressingly lacking in seasonal glitter.
But I have been listening to lots and lots of Christmas music, for which I have a weakness, and not just Handel or Heinrich Schutz, either. I have piles of it (though at least one pile seems to have disappeared into the general mess – that’s the sort of thing I should be working on, and that’s why I didn’t put up the tree – and it bugs me because I know L’Enfance du Christ is in that pile, and I’m on a Berlioz kick). Many of them are of the “opera singers do Christmas” variety (and who would miss out on Callas’s beloved Christmas album? Has any singer ever surpassed La Divina’s piercing rendition of Rudolph’s anguish?), though I range into other fields. I’m always on the lookout to add a few new Christmas albums each year. I saw one on Amazon that was credited to Twentieth Century Masters. I was eagerly expecting Milton Babbitt’s “I Don’t Care If You Listen to My Variations on Frosty the Snowman” or, at a minimum, Philip Glass’s Little Drummer Boy, but the CD turned out to have performances by Alvin and the Chipmunks and suchlike. I resisted the temptation. But when I finish Cairn’s Berlioz biography, my next music book will be The Rest Is Noise, and believe you me, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for an appearance by the Chipmunks.
It’s lucky for me I like Christmas music, because it’s ubiquitous – even Noah’s Bagels was playing O Tannenbaum this afternoon. Before work this morning I was walking around the Embarcadero Center, and I heard version after version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, an odd choice for a mall since it is the most deeply melancholy of all Christmas songs, even in the dance remix version they were playing. I can only assume people are so used to the song they don’t listen to the lyrics anymore, or hear the melody once they’ve recognized the song. This year of all hopeless years in America it seems desperate to dream that next year all our troubles will be far away, and we should be so lucky as to muddle through somehow. I don’t know how shoppers hearing this song don’t end up in an embryonic curl on the floor, sobbing for their desolated lives. I’m guessing that’s not what the malls have in mind.
That’s why in malltown we usually get the bright tunes, always carefully secular (that is definitely not a complaint – it seems too grossly ironic to hear about the impoverished little child in the manger while you’re stepping over the homeless slumped in the odd corners so that you can reach the sales before they all disappear – the sales, that is; the homeless aren’t going away anytime soon). The problem, at least for those who pay attention to the music, is that most of the popular secular songs were written in the 1950s, so they’re filled with that decade’s creeping paranoia and barely repressed twisted sexual politics. You’d better watch out! You’d better not cry! (We’re all happy here in the Homeland!) Guess who’s coming to town – the big man in red who believes in the redistribution of wealth! He has you under total surveillance! In case you miss the point, he’s got that big Karl Marx beard, and if you’re bad you get a lump of coal – an obvious symbol of the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the crushing of the proletariat. But that’s better than the creepy sexual innuendo, sung by a child who doesn’t quite realize what she’s seeing, in I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, an unnerving song that is just a short step away from I Saw Mommy Blowing Santa in the Parking Lot for a Hit of Meth. Then there’s Santa Baby. It turned up on a “Cool Christmas” compilation I bought a few years ago. I listened to it again recently, paying special attention to the lyrics. It appears to be about a prostitute or upper-middle-class housewife of some sort who, in exchange for a variety of luxury goods, is offering Santa anal intercourse. Ho ho ho indeed.
Then there are all the songs about snow. I find these slightly disorienting in an area where the cold end of the year means that the golden hills of summer are glazed green by winter rains. In the short December days I don’t see my house while it’s light except for the weekends, so it wasn’t until I went out to sweep up the leaves last Sunday that I realized I still had roses blooming – lo, how a rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! Although some of the cities around here are obviously arbitrarily named (Walnut Creek: neither a walnut nor a creek!), Castro Valley, where I grew up, is in fact a valley – kind of like Florence, only without the Renaissance – that once belonged to a ranching family named Castro. And only once, for one afternoon in my childhood, was it cold enough for something like snowflakes to fall. My mother put us all in the car and drove us up to the hilly part of town where it was coldest so we could watch the flakes fall. They melted away as soon as they touched the ground, and I feel like Colonel Aureliano Buendia remembering that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Years ago, when I heard the premiere of Harbison’s cantata for Christmas, The Flight into Egypt, he gave an interview in which he mentioned that his intention was to present the darker side of Christmas, especially in these times when the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. He makes a good point, but I wonder if he was mostly thinking of the secular songs that have taken over, by commercial necessity. Many of the old carols reflect a subtle disjunction between what is and what should, or could, be. They are filled with questions: What child is this? Yonder peasant, who is he? Who were the first to cry Noel? Mary, did you know? And what was in those ships all three on Christmas Day in the morning? Do you hear what I hear? And who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? They shift uneasily from place to place, imploring, commanding, seeking a different destiny: O come, O come Emmanuel; come, thou fount of every blessing; go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; over the river and through the woods; field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star; hasten now, good folk of the village; I wonder as I wander. And they reflect the muted glories and hidden wonders in the mundane. All is calm, all is bright; how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. So many of them emphasize how tiny and helpless the small child in the manger is. I think to take in the power of that image you don’t need to be a Christian of any sort, and in fact it might even help if you have no belief that the child is God or some variant thereof, but just a new generation of the dispossessed, born to the dispossessed.
No matter how filled with materialism, or even joyous celebration, your Christmas might be, at the day’s core is always the image of the vulnerable child, in the dead of winter. That might be why Christmas music elicits tears so easily. Perhaps the longing for a lost past is too overwhelming, or the longing for a redemption that has never arrived, unless the isolated moments of stillness are all the redemption we have. I’ve pretty much checked out of Christmas this year; the machine was just too much for me, though I’m trying to go pleasantly and decently through the days. I am a poor boy too.