The Holiday Spirit Is Fueled by Longing for Past Merry Little Christmases

Driving down Central Avenue a few weeks ago, I found myself listening to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." That's not so strange. They must play that song a zillion times during KEZ's month of "continuous Christmas music," and I'm almost always tuned in.

What is strange is that I burst into tears, right there in broad daylight.

Through the years

The author (left) and her big sister celebrate the Christmas of 1977.
The author (left) and her big sister celebrate the Christmas of 1977.

We all will be together

If the Fates allow

Until then, we'll just have to muddle through, somehow . . .

There's something appalling about crying on the road in the middle of a bright sunny day, and not just because the other cars get a clear shot of you blubbering at the wheel. It's more that the mood doesn't match the weather: How can anyone possibly be depressed under Phoenix's brilliant blue December sky?

But that lyric just slays me.

I honestly can't remember the last time all my brothers and sisters and I were home for Christmas. Scattered as we are from Phoenix to Flagstaff to Las Vegas to Milwaukee to Cleveland, even my mom has given up on getting us all in the same city at the same time.

The sad part is that, during our diaspora, I've suddenly started appreciating my siblings. I recently picked fights with both my sisters and it struck me, as I voiced my mea culpas, that my brattiness is a result of caring about them again, after years of focusing on friends and lovers instead.

Maybe I've moved enough to understand how situational friendship can be — and had enough breakups to know the same thing about men. For whatever reason, my brothers and sisters seem like the only constant, and I want to be together again, like we used to be.

And yet now there are children and needy in-laws and demanding jobs. We can't even get to the same time zone, let alone my parents' living room.

These are our muddling years, I suppose.

For the record, not every version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" contains the line that had me so rattled. Frank Sinatra himself thought it was too depressing, or so the story goes. He was recording an album called "A Jolly Christmas," according to Entertainment Weekly, and he asked if the songwriters could accordingly "jolly up" the lyric in question.

The version the songwriters altered for him is the one you usually hear today. There's no mention in it of muddling through, much less that hopeful little "somehow" dangling off the end. Instead, the singer urges us to "hang a shining star / upon the highest bough."

Far be it from me to impugn the judgment of the greatest singer of the 20th century, but blech.

Sinatra was wrong. The magic of the holiday has nothing to do with jolly ring-a-ding-ding and ho-ho-ho.

The emotional pull of Christmas, for most of us, isn't joy. It's longing.

Longing for the past; longing for the depth of feeling we once took for granted; longing for home.

At Christmastime, I sometimes find myself missing these things so deeply that I have tears in my eyes, as in that recent day on Central Avenue. But there's no better reminder of why you left home, really, than to visit it again.

In my once-a-year trips back to my parents' home in suburban Cleveland, my old house seems so much littler than I remember; my parents so small. And when you're used to having your own place, it's hard to return to the saggy twin bed of your youth — much less get confronted headlong by your parents' old habits.

"Wow, you're serving Jell-O as a salad," I remarked one recent Christmas.

"Yes, Jell-O salad," my mother said, confused. "I thought you loved Jell-O."

"Maybe when I was 6," I replied. "Anyway, it's made out of horses' hooves. That's not a salad. It's protein."

"But, Sarah," my mother said sweetly, "there are maraschino cherries in there!"

My parents set the thermostat at 62 degrees. They refuse to keep caffeine in the house, even though time and again I remind them that the one thing I require as a houseguest is Diet Coke. And why wouldn't I want to go to church with them?

I'm beginning to realize that what I long for isn't the home I grew up in.

It's my childhood.

When I was a kid, my favorite holiday song was "O Come, All Ye Faithful." They used to start our school Christmas pageant with it, and every year, we little kids would march up from the church basement in the dark, singing our hearts out with flashlights in hand. The flashlights were tipped with red crepe paper to look like candlelight — although I suppose the effect was not so much candles as torches. Singing, marching torches.

To a 5-year-old, the trick of tissue paper created the most amazing magic: the warm red glow, the row of lights bobbing along, and the music — especially the music. I remember joining with hundreds of little voices, belting out "O! Come! Let! Us! Adore! Him! Chriiiiiiist . . . the LORD!"

I was so drunk with excitement, I thought my heart might burst.

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Leigh Myers
Leigh Myers

Thank you for such a well written article. Like you, I am from Ohio and couldn't afford the $800 ticket home for Christmas. Your article opened my eyes to a reality that I was never able to pinpoint cognitively, especially the part about the emotional pull of Christmas. You make several valuable points and I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thank you again for being the comfort that was needed as another holiday passes.

tom davis
tom davis

Thanks a lot.

You got me crying.

Please, please, take every opportunity to go home. Both my parents are gone and while you're right, you would like to return to your childhood, you also want desperately to share time with your parents again.

Don't wait until it's too late to do so.

Kathy Monkman
Kathy Monkman

What a poignant piece Sarah. I've been thinking a lot about longing lately myself. And thinking maybe it's not such a bad state to be in. Maybe it's some sort of magnet that draws that *whatever* to you. And of course you can't always get what you want...but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. Dammit.

Chris Long
Chris Long

"What's gone can never be regained for any price..."

It WAS better when XMAS was more than just a retail sales event and the commercial tsunami didn't really exist. Looked what they've turned it into...

Now the PC crowd is even trying to prevent the rest of us from offending them by having a merry little Christmas.

Like Sarah, the revelation hits you like a freight train -- forget all the junk you can but and people can buy's those we love and love us that made those long ago Christmases bright. All the gifts under the tree etc. -- that was just stuff.

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