Archive for November 2012

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland and by Perry Como

November 30, 2012

During this year’s Thanksgiving celebration, my family and I were discussing holiday songs. My mother mentioned how much she loved Judy Garland’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” “No one sings that song better than she did,” my mom declared. My father piped in saying that he liked Perry Como’s rendition of the same tune. This led me to, a few days later, listen anew to both versions. Really, if Judy’s version is London, then Perry’s is Tokyo.

Judy’s is the original, from the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, which I have never seen. (Note to self–try to watch in 2013.) She sings with a heavy heart–her voice is on the verge of cracking and potentially escalating to full-throttle meltdown at any minute. Don’t listen to this version if you’ve recently lost a loved one or are going to be away from home for Christmas. This is one of the saddest recordings of all time.

Then we have Perry’s rendition. His take is downright jaunty. There are jingling bells and cheery background singers. Some lyrics have been modified or replaced with more uplifting, hopeful words. The tempo is sped up. And while little moments in this song can make you feel sentimental, you generally feel cheerful and hopeful when this version ends.

Two singers. Two very different lives influencing their artistry. Two separate arrangements, accompanying musicians, styles, and outcomes.

And yet, the same song.

This led to me to reflect on the gift that is perspective. I am a person who cannot stop herself from becoming emotionally involved–with people,  interests, events. If something matters to me, it matters entirely. I don’t know how to maintain objectivity or distance myself from feeling strongly–whether it’s about loved ones, politics, religion, sports, music, matters at work, matters at home. My default inclination is to take things seriously, whatever those things may be.

Usually, when I’ve become once again consumed and preoccupied, I’ve forgotten about the importance of keeping things in perspective. Cliches abound to demonstrate the role that interpretation can play in our lives and the different paths upon with such interpretation can set us. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Some see the cup half full, while others see it half empty. And some people have merry little Christmases like Judy, while others have them like Perry. (OK, the last one I made up.)

Reflecting on this, I have realized that the times in my life when I have struggled the most have been when I’ve lost the ability to keep things in perspective. This is not an earth-shattering revelation, I realize, but it’s an important idea to keep front and center during the holidays. Unchecked stress can turn things that can be wonderful, like giving gifts, decorating, and sharing one’s home, into just more pains in the a**. The shift from one year to another can be viewed either with hope for all that could be accomplished or with disappointment over all that did not get done.

I’ve tried without success to find who originally said “events themselves have no meaning–only the meaning we give them.” This idea is a hallmark of approaches to treating depression and anxiety, both of which can be problematic at this time of year. It seems to be the basis of existential philosophy and close to the approach of Eastern religions. I believe there is much that is good about this viewpoint, but I am reluctant to totally accept it. My fear is of confusing perspective with detachment, and there is a difference, albeit subtle.

To simplify, there is the idea that to truly be spiritually evolved, one must detach from this world and all that it offers–both good and bad. While I think it is always helpful to maintain a sense of objectivity, detachment can negate experiencing life to its fullest. The very act of living–of honoring the good and the bad, of learning to contextualize events, and of actually assigning meaning to the whole of your humanity–this, to me, is worthwhile in and of itself. Our true purpose may be just to experience and assign meaning, if not for posterity, then simply for ourselves while we are alive. (I am an amateur in trying to summarize this–these issues are best explored and articulated by Viktor Frankl in his masterwork Man’s Search for Meaning, a text I re-read whenever a sense of despair decides to come calling at my door.)

The flip side of perspective is balance. Too often, we forget the things we learned from challenging events and overvalue or romanticize happy times and events. Life is the summary of both the sad and the sublime. Living successfully, for me, has meant living in balance–an ongoing challenge for my naturally intense and serious personality, but a truth I remind myself of continually whenever I start drifting too low or too high . . .

And so, in honor of perspective and balance, today’s song is presented in both incarnations. Judy and Perry each have something to offer to the holiday. You can choose to like one more than the other. Or not.

I choose to treasure both.

“Christmastime Is Here” by the Cast of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS

November 29, 2012

A Charlie Brown Christmas aired last night. My viewing was approximately my 25th time watching it. It’s a peculiar special. Although humorous and replete with funny moments, there are no side-splitting events or uproarious scenes.

Really, the entire program is laced with melancholy. Charlie Brown’s despair over the holidays is almost existential. One can appreciate his sense of disgust, almost anguish, over the commercialism that has overtaken Christmas (and that, may I add, has only mushroomed since the show’s original broadcast in 1965).

Something I tuned into only recently–Charlie Brown’s holiday-related disappointment continues even after Linus (seemingly inspired by the Holy Spirit) emphasizes the true meaning of Christmas. Until just a few years ago, I mistakenly thought that the special concluded with Linus reciting the biblical passages depicting Jesus’ birth. But that isn’t the end. The end comes only after Charlie Brown feels like a failure yet again when his pathetic, poorly decorated tree collapses despite his best efforts. The real end is his friends (and dog) coming to the rescue to save the tree, boost his spirits, and ease his anxiety.

Often, Christianity is preoccupied with its focus on the divine. Obviously, an appreciation of and reverence toward God are absolutely crucial. But are those things happening at the expense of an appreciation for the importance of the human community? It is that spirit of community that very much underscores the entire A Charlie Brown’s Christmas special.

It’s not enough to remember why Jesus was born and died. It’s not enough to be concerned only with what Christ said, or how strong our faith in God’s existence may be, or our internal connection to a divine presence. If we do not put the message of Christ into action, then Jesus’ whole purpose for coming into the material word is somewhat negated. There is value in using Jesus’s teachings as the basis of our daily interactions with one another. We serve God not only by showing up to church services and praying, but also when we pull together as a group and take the time to inspire and redeem others at their low points.

Christ himself did not stay detached from human beings–he became one of us, lived among us, and delivered a message focused on people helping one another. He gave two commandments to us–one to love God, and the other to love one another. I feel like in the last several years, particularly with the harshness of discourse directed toward the poor, and minorities, and the downtrodden, and the “other,” that the second commandment is often forgotten (or maybe conveniently ignored).

There could not really have been a better conclusion to A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s rooted in the same dual message of the person whose birth we celebrate. Linus’s speech reminds us whom we honor during the holiday in the first place. The Peanuts gang bonding together to create something beautiful and to help the most disconsolate among them (ie, a boy named Charlie Brown) shows how we can put the message behind the holiday into practical action.

“Oh that we could always see such spirit through the year.”

“J-I-N-G-L-E Bells” by Frank Sinatra

November 28, 2012

Facebook gets a bad rap. Usually from me. I have an extreme love-hate relationship with this social (or sometimes apparently antisocial) outlet. There are days I vow to disable my account, annoyed by someone saying something I disagree with, or disappointed no one liked my obviously witty (at least to me) remark, or simply disgusted by how much time I have wasted on it when I could have done something far more productive. (Like writing a blog about holiday popular culture.)

But this week, Facebook brought me a little measure of happiness. I have been posting my Christmas tunes to Facebook, and while only a few people take notice each day, my cousin Janet has been checking in pretty regularly. In an exchange about holiday tunes last week, she mentioned her favorite Christmas song. Yesterday, following a moment of boredom and frustration at work, I checked my Facebook and noticed she had posted a message to me–that she’d been listening to holiday songs on Sirius radio and thought of me. This made me happy–to know someone was thinking of me and had connected the love of the holidays and holiday music with me.

And so, today, I am posting her favorite Christmas tune (and one of mine) in her honor. Here’s Old Blue Eyes,  doing his own take on those J-I-N-G-L-E Bells. Miss Janet, enjoy. 🙂

“Keep Christmas With You” by The Cast of Sesame Street

November 27, 2012

The post for today is a song many people likely have forgotten. It’s not a tune you hear on the radio, or that’s included in compilations, or that anyone sings in churches. And yet it represents one of my most indelible childhood Christmas memories.

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street

What a wonderful special with so many little moments: Big Bird and the little girl figure skater whipping around the rink to Feliz Navidad.” Oscar the Grouch being hurtled down several flights of steps, only to ask to do it again because it was so much fun. Kermit the Frog sharing children’s unconvincing explanations to Big Bird about how Santa would fit down the chimney. Bob wishing Mr. Hooper (sob!) a Happy Hanukkah. Cookie Monster failing several times to reach Santa because every communication device resembled a cookie. Ernie and Bert exchanging gifts, similar to the Gift of the Magi, teaching each of them how special the other was to him. Santa arriving despite Big Bird’s worry. And of course, the centerpiece for me, this posted song that reminds us that Christmas does not have to end on December 25th. Just like the spirit and joy of Sesame Street never really have to leave you, even when you are no longer a child.

I cried when I heard it as a little girl. Last year, when I watched the special again with my then 7-year-old son, I cried again. And I think he understood.

“It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” by Bing Crosby

November 26, 2012

This is a carol I like by many different artists. I chose Bing’s version because I really like the wistful, sweet way he sings the last line–“Sure, it’s Christmas once more!” I haven’t really heard anyone else add that little line at the end.

I also like that this song takes me back to a time and place that I never actually experienced, but that somehow feels familiar–five-and-dime stores, trees in grand hotels, children caroling in the snow, department stores stocking up on toys. Today’s world really doesn’t afford these experiences any longer. And yet, they still represent a Christmas we all understand.

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Daryl Hall and John Oates

November 25, 2012

Today’s commentary will be short and sweet. This is one of my top traditional carols. I was torn between posting this version and Anne Murray’s version. Hall and Oates won out because their rendition is awesome, and they have a Philadelphia connection. My city at Christmas. A Philly band singing the song. Love it.

“God Bless Us Everyone” by Andrea Bocelli

November 24, 2012

A Christmas Carol. The defining literary work of the holiday season. So many versions of it. So many different actors who have played Ebenezer Scrooge. Many have done so wonderfully over the years. Among them Jim Backus as Mr. Magoo, Michael Caine, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, and, yes, Jim Carrey in the most recent version out just a few years ago. (Although, in this writer’s opinion, Carrey was outdone by Gary Oldman’s masterwork as Bob Cratchit and several other characters . . .)

I fell in love with this story as a small girl. The first version I remember had the aforementioned Mr. Magoo in the lead. The part that most affected me was the scene when Magoo as Scrooge returned to his schoolroom and confronted the child he once was.

Now, I am sure this especially touched me because the child in the show was about my age, and his experience did not seem that different from my own. No, I was not abandoned to my schoolmaster for extra lessons by my parents. I was in no way neglected. And I had friends. But at some fundamental level, I very much understood the young Ebenezer when he sang:

“A hand for each hand was planned for the world

Why don’t my fingers reach?

Millions of grains of sand in the world

Why such a lonely beach?

Where is a voice to answer mine back?

Where are two shoes that click to my clack?

I’m all alone in the world.”

Maybe to an extent all children feel that way. It’s hard to make yourself heard when you are small. And it’s hard to know if anyone really, truly understands. Particularly when you, as a child, live in this world but in other worlds as well. Worlds where Barbie weddings are matters of great import. And all ideas of what you will be when you grow up seem perfectly logical and attainable. (Somehow, you’ll manage to juggle being the first female president and a professional detective all at once.) And there is no doubt of the actual existence of Santa Claus. And it’s totally possible that a person can be visited by ghosts who help him understand his past, scare him into fearing his future, and consequently appreciate and make the most of his present.

Flashforward several years. The young girl is now a woman of middle age, lucky enough to still have relatively young parents and to live close to them and to her brother–the three people with whom she grew up. She has many friends of longstanding and good relationships with other relatives, colleagues, and associates. And she sees a new interpretation of Dickens’s classic work, which contains a song. This time lyrics that affect her most strongly are as follows:

“To the voices no one hears

We have come to find you.

With your laughter and your tears…

Goodness, hope, and virtue

Father, Mother, Daughter, Son

Each a treasure be.

One candle’s light dispels the night;

Now our eyes can see—

Burning brighter than the sun.

God Bless Us Everyone”

I am grateful to no longer feel alone in the world. To appreciate the father, mother, daughter, son of my family of origin, and, with the same true love, the father, mother, daughter, and son of the family I have helped to create. My role has stayed the same. My role has changed. Sometimes I run from the past, and sometimes I dread the future. But I am learning, each day to bless and maximize the present.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” by Luther Vandross

November 23, 2012

I discovered this only a few years ago. It simply took my breath away. I am not a huge fan of gospel music or choirs–I often find them overpowering. But this is about as close to perfect a rendition of a Christmas carol as you can get.

Luther Vandross’s voice is spot on. Reverent. Serious. Despite being a song everyone knows, this version makes you feel like you are hearing it for the first time. Listening to it reminds me that artistry does not always mean the ability to create. One does not necessarily need to start from scratch to mold something beautiful and special. Artistry also can mean  taking something that exists and redefining it. One can take familiar elements and subtly but nonetheless significantly change them for rediscovery and new appreciation. And isn’t that, in an odd way, much like Christmas itself? We’re all so familiar with it. It’s always the same traditions–carols, cookies, gift exchanges, church services, meals. And yet, every year, there is a new event to consider, new friends and relatives with whom to share, new songs, new decorations. The  general traditions are the same, but the ability to innovate each year makes every holiday special and its own unique experience.

This artist, like many of the best of them, passed from this world far too soon. I’ve tried to find out more about Luther’s religious background. He sings this carol with such conviction that it would surprise me to learn that he did not have a strong connection to his faith. Perhaps not. Maybe his conviction wasn’t conviction after all. Maybe, instead, his vocals reflect a subtle desperation–a longing to believe, to possess the self-assurance of the zealot, to never question or doubt, to not require the holiday season to be reminded to  focus on that which is good, lovely, holy, sacred, solemn, valuable in the world.

I don’t know. Obviously, I struggle with these issues, and my desperation knows no subtlety. Of one thing I am sure: when I hear Mr. Vandross sing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” I am once again a believer.