Blue Christmas, Third Sunday of Advent

 Note:  I'll be sharing some thoughts every Sunday through Advent to help myself plow through this time of stillness when I so often love to go to church for the ceremony surrounding the waiting time. 


One of my prized possessions is a 45 single of "Please Come Home For Christmas" by The Eagles.  I like The Eagles a lot but I would never call myself a super-fan.  But this particular record belonged to my aunt, Sis, and she loved them.  In particular she loved "Please Come Home for Christmas". 

In the gloomy evenings after Thanksgiving she and I would decorate her tree and pull out her Christmas music, which was a vast treasure.  We worked for hours on her artificial tree, which had to be perfect.  First it had to be shaped, then laden with thousands of lights and a hundred ornaments.  My favorite part was the finishing touch:  adding the icicles, which were some kind of shiny, silver, synthetic strands that you hung all over the tree to increase the amount of light via reflection.  They're a thing of the past now, but in the early 1980s lots of people used them. We got ours at stores like TG&Y or Rose's. 

We played albums like Elvis's Christmas Album, A Very Special Christmas, or Christmastime With The Judds.   I would also put on a whole stack of 45s. The record player knew how to make one play, then another drop and play, and repeat this until the stack was spent.  At some point in the evening the single of "Please Come Home for Christmas" would drop beneath the needle and a lone piano would play four inimitable notes and then Don Henley's rich tenor: "Bells will be ringing/the sad, sad news." Then, a meditation on missing those you love at Christmas.  Without fail I would find Sis had set down on the naugahyde couch with tears running down her face, a Winston Light in one hand and a pink Kleenex in the other.  I didn't have to ask why she was crying.  We all knew why Sis sometimes collapsed in weeping like this, especially at Christmastime.  This song in particular set her off. 

My uncle Jack was murdered during a card game when I was eleven years old and his death was a shadow over my childhood, shaping everything from how the family told stories to how we celebrated holidays. He was the brother of Aunt Sis and my mother.  It's one thing for someone in your family to die; it's quite another for them to be murdered.  In that case the grief is combined with an overwhelming sense of injustice and a heightened anger that sizzles out across years or decades.  No one in our family expressed that sadness or anger more openly than Sis.  In fact, she was the only person in our family who also readily admitted to having "the blues".  She sometimes cried openly, no matter where she was, despite having a steely demeanor that was not easily fazed.  She was no fainting daisy by any means and even in her crying there was always a defiance and strength present.  Sis was not only someone prone to depression, she also was easily moved, especially by music.  This was in a time when talking about one's sadness was not nearly as common, especially in the rural South where I grew up.  That was meant to be done quietly and privately.  

While we all know many people are hurting especially at Christmas, we still have the attitude that it must be the happiest time of year.  The third Sunday of Advent usually focuses on joy.  Some churches call this day Gaudete Sunday since gaudete is Latin for "rejoice" as we home in on the day that observes the birth of Christ.  

Unlike Sis, I have never been one to talk very openly about my own stints with the blues.  For a lot of people, talking about it helps a lot, but for me the opposite is true.  My blues cure has always been writing. Writing is my therapy and my prayer.  I've also been lucky because I have not been a person who has struggled tremendously with depression, more an occasional stretch of melancholy that comes and goes like clockwork and has no real impetus.  But for the past five years I have been experiencing thick grief.   

We lost Sis in February of 2015 and I felt as if I had been gutted, a tremendous loss that I examined at length in my essay "Into the Hazelwood" that was published a couple years ago.  One of the things that hurt me the most upon her passing was knowing how often she had been lonesome and sad.  Some amount of guilt is often part of grief and I still regret all the time that I could have spent with her and didn't.  We all have our regrets when someone passes, and this is the dull pain I carry with me. Only a month later we lost my beloved Uncle Sam, then my cherished Uncle Bobby. The more people I lose the more I study on how much I miss my maternal grandparents and my paternal grandmother, all three whom I lost when I was much younger and who would have been as disgusted by this last four years of presidential atrocity as I have been. It would have been wonderful to have their wisdom in examining some of that mess.  Not long after losing my aunt and uncles we lost our good old dog Rufus, who saved my life a few times over the years (I wrote about him for Garden and Gun's "Good Dog" series), and the dog I had the longest in my life. I think about him every single day.  

Sis and her Christmas tree, December 2013

All of these deaths have changed me in ways I could have never expected.  Mostly they have made me more thankful for every minute I have with the people and animals I love.  So has the pandemic.  I hope this time of waiting, of being still, might lead to a paradigm shift for us.  I don't believe that it will culturally, but it can individually.  I believe that as much as the loss of community has saddened me (which I wrote about here for The Atlantic), the more I have found joy in the ordinary.  Likewise, I've experienced the kind of melancholia and grief that have heightened my sense of awareness, allowing me to see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the way an animal does.  When you do that, your joy is increased all the time.  

It's a beautiful third Sunday of Advent here where I am in Kentucky.  The sky is low and gray, but the sun is shining through like a bright yet smudged silver coin.  We recently bought a piece of property that possesses good old trees and a little creek with rocks that are covered in a moss that is greener than green. There is always the music of falling water there.  I'm going to go down there right now and study on how this Sunday of Advent is meant to focus on the joy.  Over the years the best thing I've learned about the sadness I carry with me all the time now is that grief can live alongside joy.  They do not have to be completely separate.  Sometimes when I look back on all the good memories the joy and the grief are so tangled together I could never pick them apart.  That's the stuff of living.  


*Here's a playlist of some of my favorite sad Christmas songs, some that Sis and I used to listen to together, and some about joy.  



mac said…
I remember icicles and Roses, and I benefited from reading the remembrances of Rufus and Aunt Sis. Lovely and moving.

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