Christmas is always bittersweet.
Ostensibly a festival which gives hope to all human beings, tidings of comfort and joy, all that, it’s never been that kind of happy-clappy thing it appears on the surface.
Partly it is because the double-edged nature is built into the festival, into its myths. The best example perhaps is in three wise men who brought the gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The gift of gold appears straightforward enough: frankincense is more ambivalent and myrrh is an embalming ointment. It prefigures the crucifixion, suffering and the fact this child will be tortured to death.
The most memorable carols are often ineffably sad: ‘Silent Night’ is incredibly melancholy, and as a child, for years, I would avoid it. Partly because I associated it with an episode of ‘Lassie’ in which Lassie had gone missing and Little Timmy had to sing it in the town choir. I must have been about four when I saw that.
That double-edged nature of the festival carries into the secular songs associated with Christmas, often in bizarre ways.
One of the most popular modern Christmas songs, the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, is a duet between two people at the end of every tether they could have reached the limit of: in a drunk tank, insulting each other with foul epithets (‘you scumbag, you maggot’ ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ etc) and yet managing to be somehow uplifting at the same time.
A more bizarre one is the loved and hated Snoopy’s Christmas: a childish celebration of a mythical duel above World War One’s western front between the lovable cartoon dog Snoopy and the real-life, somewhat cold and probably psychologically disturbed Manfred von Richthofen. Who was, after all, the greatest fighter ace of the First World War, whose specialty was sneaking up behind reconnaissance machines and setting them on fire – and then, if they, as they usually did, fell on his side of the lines, scouring the wreckage for souvenirs amid the bodies.
It is a deeply weird song.
Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly wrote one of the great Christmas songs, about a bloke phoning his family home from prison at Christmas. ‘How To Make Gravy’ is a song which builds and builds, emotionally: I wrote a bit more about it here a few years back.
Christmas can be a jarring time: it is supposed to be about home, not just about physical home but also the feeling of being with someone you are meant to belong with.
The other double-edged thing about Christmas is it is poignant because you remember previous, happier Christmases with loved ones who aren’t around anymore.
Or who might be there this time but are under a cloud of some sort or other which throws into question whether they will be there next year.
That brings me to another great, non-seasonal Paul Kelly song – Deeper Water, a song following a young boy being taken swimming by his dad, to feeling out of his depth as he grows up and life’s experiences, both joyous and sorrowful, threaten to overwhelm him.
‘The clock moves around
The child is a joy
But death doesn’t care just who it destroys
The woman gets sick
Thins down to the bone
She says “where I’m going next,
I’m going alone….”‘
Like I say, it’s not a Christmas song in the least. But it cuts to the heart of the joys and sorrows of life in the same way Christmas can.
Setting the religion aside for those who want to take it literally, I think the great power of Christmas is, in fact, this double-edged nature.
It seems we humans need to mark these apparently incompatible things together, somehow: both joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, silly toy cartoon characters and disturbed real-life sociopaths, alcoholic abusive degradation and uplift and hope; and, yes, a figure who has come to give hope to all humans who is publicly humiliated and tortured to death.
It is a reminder that we are all these things and that all these things – at some metaphorical level anyway – are part of our lives.
That joy and suffering are at the core of human experience.
And that both lie at the heart of this strange thing we call love.