“Seriously, someone needs to write some new Christmas songs,” my daughter said. We were in the car moving from one faceless box store to another, as you do this time of year, with the radio on. “I’m only fourteen and I’m already sick of all these.”
Immediately my mind started crafting an explanation, pulling apart the cultural and historical shifts over the past five decades that have brought us to the point where almost all familiar Christmas songs are at least sixty years old. I wondered why the war and post-war cultures were such fertile Christmas classic grounds, and why our earth today seems so parched. Is it as simple as a shift in the way media is created and distributed? Or are there fundamental differences in attitude now? Or are we less creative? Or maybe it’s because — wait — she doesn’t care about any of this. I need to say something that won’t bore the bejeez out of her, for once. Something cool, but not too cool, not like I’m trying to sound cool. Something I hear her say a lot.
“Same,” I said.
She seemed satisfied with that. The fewer words from me, the better.
Brenda Lee’s voice rocked around the Christmas tree and filled the resolute silence between us. I reached up and turned it off. We both needed a break from people telling us to be merry in upbeat, rhyming, major chords.
In the quiet I scanned the mental database for newer classics, looking for one she hasn’t heard before. “Merry Christmas, War is Over,” “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time,” “Fairytale of New York.” No, she’s heard those a million times, mainly because of me.
Wait!! Waaaiiiiit!!! I’ve got it!!!
I pulled over and excitedly picked up my phone. Twenty seconds later, Robert Earl Keen was drawling, “Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk…at our Christmas party…” while concert-goers crooned along in the background.
What do you call that thing that teenage girls do, where they frown slightly and tuck their chin back in a recoil of disgust, like they smell something bad? “What is this?” Julia said, doing that thing.
“It’s called Merry Christmas from the Family,” I said, “1994 I think. It’s by Robert Earl Keen. It’s funny!!”
She didn’t agree. She turned and stared out the window. Dad-fail.
I kept it running though, cause I hadn’t heard it yet this year and I knew it would make me smile. “Little sister brought her new boyfriend. He waaaas a Mexicaaaaan,” I belted along loudly, laughing. “We didn’t know what to think of him til he sang Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidaaaaaaaad.” By now I didn’t care what Julia thought, I was all caught up in the song. When you have a teenage girl, there’s a moment in every interaction when you realize you don’t actually care that you disgust her. That’s where the true freedom is.
Brother Ken brought his kids with him
The three from his first wife Lynn
And the two identical twins from his second wife Mary Nell
Of course he brought his new wife Kay
Who talks all about AA
Chain smoking while the stereo plays Noel, Noel
The First Noel
By now she was completely tuned out, texting her boyfriend. “Save me!!,” probably.
Carve the Turkey
Turn the ball game on
Mix margaritas when the eggnog’s gone
Send somebody to the Quickpak Store
We need some ice and an extension cord
A can of bean dip and some Diet Rites
A box of tampons, some Marlboro Lights
Hallelujah everybody say “Cheese”
Merry Christmas from the family
If you haven’t heard it, it’s basically an extended musical Christmas card from a cartoonishly rednecky clan, sung in a raspy drunken Texas twang.
Fred and Rita drove from Harlingen
I can’t remember how I’m kin to them
But when they tried to plug their motor home in
They blew our Christmas lights
I could see it. I sang with a loud smile and looked over at Julia. Nothing. Whatever. Her loss.
Cousin David knew just what went wrong
So we all waited out on our front lawn
He threw a breaker and the lights came on
And we sang Silent Night, Oh Silent Night, Oh Holy Night
And right then it happened. Suddenly, unexpectedly. I choked up. Way up. Like, major tears. My throat caught and I stopped singing. I had no choice but to stop. Robert Earl and his drunken crowd kept on, but I was done.
Straight from laughter to tears. I never saw it coming. It was something about that last line, something about this cobbled mess of a family standing together outside, watching the broken lights finally come back on, then spontaneously starting Silent Night. Something about that.
Julia looked over to see if I was okay. It’s been a hard year for all of us, her especially. This was the year her parents split up, they year we all started scrambling to figure out what to do next. The year we stopped being a perfect family and started being a broken one. A family that some people pull closer to and others pull away from. So far from perfect, so far from ideal, so far from ‘normal.’
I re-started the song. I had to hear it again, to listen from a completely new angle this time. I immediately realized that the song’s redneck silliness is only skin-deep, that you can quickly get beneath it if you want to. And when you do, it stops being clownish and starts being beautiful. Truly, profoundly beautiful.
I think that’s because it’s the only Christmas song I know of that talks about loving what is instead of pining for what we wish was. All the other songs I can think of are odes to scenes that are just out of reach, by a little or by a lot. They entice our imaginations toward snow and sleighs and sustainable happy feelings. Or they point believers to a savior who has come and will someday set things right, but who hasn’t yet. Or they are simply children’s stories about snowmen and reindeer.
But this one, this song is about right here, right now. It’s about the real mess of Christmas. It’s about alcoholic relatives and broken/blended families and menstruation and cigarette addiction and cans of fake snow. Before you push it away with laughter, take a moment to look closer at that checklist. There’s nothing on there that hasn’t been part of your Christmas before.
This is a song about what really is, not about what you wish was.
And right in the middle of the tampons and the Salem lights there is that moment. The moment on the front lawn. You might miss it, as I always did before now, if you’re too busy laughing. It’s small and quiet, but it’s there.
And I’m now convinced that that moment, the one on the lawn, holds the key to Christmas happiness. Not engineering joy through beautifully decked halls, perfectly chosen gifts, well behaved family, or elegant meals. Those things are nothing. They are truly nothing. You will not remember any of those things a month from now.
What is something, what you will remember, is that moment when true beauty decides to visit your messed up family. It’s always fleeting, and it’s never something you can engineer or even predict. If it happens, if you are that lucky, it just happens.
The best you can do is allow space for it and deeply appreciate it when it comes.
There is no happiness to be found in what you wish you had. None. There is only happiness in what and who you already have, right here and now, and only if you choose to see it.
My life is pretty messy right now. This is going to be a messy Christmas, without a doubt. There’s no hope for perfection in any form this year. It’s all about making the best with what I have, for myself and for the people I love. And longing for some far-away, perfect scene only makes things worse.
So forgive me if I change the station when Perry Como or Bing Crosby come on the radio (I’ve never really known what the hell those guys are talking about anyway). This year I need something a little closer to home, something that reminds me that real Christmas happiness is still possible in the middle of what seems a little messy.
Hallelujah, everybody say “Cheese”
Merry Christmas from the Family*
*such as it is