I never celebrated the holidays growing up, so I don’t have the same childhood memories of Christmas and Santa, reindeer and caroling and all the other things generally linked to this time of year. When I think back about those years, I tend to remember moments of awkwardness, explaining to classmates why I didn’t get Christmas presents, or why I didn’t believe in Jesus (I did! Just not in the same way they did), and I also remember a sense of superiority, because the reason we didn’t celebrate Christmas is because we knew the truth about the holiday and thus had God’s particular favor and man, were all those people who’d treated me like I was the weirdo going to regret it come Armageddon.
Since I left the church I was raised in now nearly half my lifetime ago, I’ve started looking at the holidays in general a bit differently. I’m still awkward around them, even after all these years, because I’ve internalized the idea that there’s a proper way to celebrate them and I just never had the chance to learn how. That’s nonsense, of course. There are as many ways to celebrate holidays as there are people celebrating them, and I’m gradually coming to accept that.
This year, we’re doing things a little differently, because of the pandemic. Normally we’re with my wife’s family, down in south Florida, where they’ve taken care of the tree and decorations, where my wife and I are maybe trying to clean up the end of the semester at a distance, where we’re hoping the summer has finally broken and the temperature midday is closer to 70 than 90, where White Christmas is sung ironically if at all. This year we’ve stayed home, gotten a big (for us) tree, strung lights in the windows. I’ve crocheted elf hats for the twins and ornaments for the tree, and we’ve stacked presents for them in big piles already. And I’ve started listening to the only Christmas song that’s ever really hit me, Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas.”
Back in 2011, Charles Pierce wrote this piece in Esquire about this song, and I think it’s even more appropriate today. He tells the story of how Frank Sinatra got the composer to change the penultimate line because he didn’t want to sing it, and how it ruins the song. To make matters worse, according to Pierce at the time, Sinatra’s version became the most covered version of the song.
How can one line make such a difference? The Sinatra version closes with “Hang a shining star atop the highest bough.” It’s vaguely uplifting, and I can see why, in a universe where the other version doesn’t exist, it would be popular, especially given how Sinatra sings the hell out of it.
But if you know Garland’s version (and if you don’t, you should stop reading this and click the video above and come back to me), you know the song closes like this: “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” (Side note: I don’t know if Margaret O’Brien was acting while Garland sang the hell out of that song or was just as overwhelmed as I am every time I hear it, but her face is epic there.)
Pierce made the observation back in 2011 that we’re generally a nation of muddlers, and I think there’s still some truth to that, but it’s especially true this year, where most people in this country have not only been separated from each other, but have also been abandoned by government, especially the federal government, but also state and local ones, leaving us to just try to make it through until we can go to the grocery store without having a panic attack that we’ve been exposed to Covid.
But when I listened to this song a couple of weeks ago on a rare moment when I was at home alone, the place I started crying was the lines before the one I mentioned above. “”Someday soon, we all will be together / if the fates allow.” The fates haven’t been kind to a lot of people in this country this year. I suspect most people either know someone who has died from Covid or know someone who’s lost a family member to it, and we all know someone who’s had it at this point. And yet people are still taking dangerous chances to be with each other, even when the case loads are so high they’re overwhelming health care systems nationwide and more people are dying every day than died at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11, or from any other natural disaster you can possibly name.
The worst part is, I can understand why they’re doing it. This need to be with loved ones is so central to who we are as humans that some of us are willing to lie to ourselves that it’s not that serious or that we’ll be the ones who do it safely or just simply say it’s worth the risk. And we’re going to lose so many more of them because of it, because they can’t muddle though anymore. They’ve been muddling through since February and they’re muddled out.
But we have to keep at it. That’s what the song says. “we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Somehow. And there is reason for hope that eventually we’ll be able to get back together. Multiple vaccines are beginning distribution, with more still under development. There’s the possibility that a change in government will allow for some financial relief for people who’ve been struggling (please, Georgia, elect Warnock and Ossoff in January). It’s not going to be immediate—you can’t just get the shots and act like it’s over, because it’s entirely likely that you can be safe and still spread the virus to unprotected people, so the muddling will continue for a bit yet. But muddling gets easier when you can see an end to it.
So whatever holiday you’re celebrating at this time of year, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, any of the others I’m missing, have a merry one, merry as you can make it, and keep muddling with me, so someday soon, we all can be together.