In late November, high queen of sadness Phoebe Bridgers put out a four song EP of Christmas music titled “If We Make It Through December.” It is the saddest collection of music on offer from an artist whose other albums are most known for being what depressed people listen to while taking long walks and crying. The title track is a Merle Haggard cover, a hard-bitten tale of a man laid off from his job and running out of money, trying and failing to provide a Christmas celebration for his family, and promising that if they can just “make it through December,” things will get better. Filtered through Bridger’s delicate, hesitant soprano, it is nearly unbearable: “I don’t mean to hate December,” she warbles, voice rising insistently and with no small amount of bitterness, “it’s meant to be the happy time of year.”
That meant to be is the heart of the song, and of this whole season, this whole glittering and obligated holiday. On another track, a cover of McCarthy Trenching’s 2018 “Christmas Song,” Bridgers howls out a chorus about the loneliness of the holiday even in its pre-pandemic, family-gathering form. Comparing sadness to a brick thrown through a window, it ends with the refrain “and it’s Christmas, so no one can fix it.”
My building didn’t have heat or hot water from Saturday through late last night. On Saturday morning I woke up to a horrible smell coming from the radiators in our apartment. We called our neighbors— only three of whom are actually still here, hunkering down through the strangest holiday season— and then we called the fire department, who arrived in their big red clanging truck, with all the lights going and a giant wreath on its nose all pine and tinsel. The whole thing looked like Christmas, like Santa Claus had pulled up on our block, printed against the grayish snow. I took a picture.
The fire department determined that the boiler was busted. A waterline had broken, flooding the basement apartment. The empty boiler had been trying to burn up its own insides; when we turned on our hot water tap, soot came out. They eventually let us know that the boiler would have to be replaced, meaning we wouldn’t have heat or hot water until Wednesday at the earliest (at around 10pm last night the heat came back; we’re still waiting on hot water). A few hours later our building manager knocked on the door to drop off two space heaters per apartment and to let us know that Wednesday was not a guarantee. But it’s Christmas, I wanted to wail at him. I didn’t; I muttered “Happy Holidays,” and thanked him and brought the space heaters inside. Thomas called our renter’s insurance provider. It was, by this point, very cold. I took a freezing cold shower and stood directly in front of the space heater after, warming my limbs one by one.
The entirety of the chorus, in the easy, heartbroken, three-drinks-in sway of a country song, goes “you don’t have to be alone to be lonesome / it’s easy to forget / the sadness comes crashing like a brick through the window / and it’s Christmas so no one can fix it.” No one is supposed to be sad on Christmas, which is a large part of the reason so many people are. This is a holiday about togetherness, about warmth, about abundance, which means that when the opposites of those, which to a greater or lesser degree haunt every life, rise up, they seem like unsolvable problems and great personal failures. But it’s Christmas, as my building manger disappears down my hallway with no promise that it is going to be warm again any time soon. In a time when everything is obligated to be more special— brighter, louder, happier, more loving, more together, more celebratory—anything outside of those glowing categories seems far worse than it otherwise would, highlighted by its contrast with expectation.
Not everyone celebrates Christmas, of course, but almost everyone is subjected to it one way or another. The decorations that go up around cities and in lit-up stretches of suburban towns are themed to this one holiday, or at least its secular aspects. Christmas music is nearly inescapable, as are television specials, Christmas movies, desperately Christmas-themed offerings from all kinds of businesses, and other people’s stories about and attachment to their Christmas traditions. The ubiquity of Christmas is Santa and reindeer and trees and presents, but also warmth, abundance, family, and gathering. The obligation to the second half of these things is inescapable both for people who happen not to celebrate this holiday, and for people whose relationship to things like family or home is fraught, unsteady, or shot through with tragedy. Christmas plans may be optional, but someone’s expectation that of course you have them, is less so.
Two days before the heat in my building shut off, Aaron texted me from London that Christmas was cancelled. I knew what he meant, referring to the Tier 4 lockdown that had just gone into effect, but the phrase also seemed ridiculous, impossible, You can’t cancel Christmas. December 25th would still be a day off from work, even remote work, after all, and would still be called “Christmas.” Churches would still play “Silent Night” and “What Child is This” even if they played them primarily over Zoom and Youtube to congregants wearing pajamas in their living rooms. But he meant that the enveloping togetherness expected by Christmas, the rooms made warm by the collecting abundance of people with them, the houses overflowing with love gathered and bunched up like tinsel wound around a tree, were cancelled. The lights shining out of the darkness shut off, the warm rooms spilling welcome into the street closed and dark, their doors bolted.
Christmas is an indoor holiday, which means it is about warm rooms, and which in turn means it underlines and makes more cruel the spaces beyond those rooms. The inarticulate sense of injustice that has bunched up around this holiday under the circumstances of this hell year is much like the childish outrage I felt watching the building manager disappear down the hall and wanting to yell but it’s Christmas, as though that mattered. The outsize weight given to the holiday and the impossible expectations placed on it mean that, even in a normal year, it holds maximum potential for sadness and disappointment. In a year like this one, the fact of trying to have Christmas at all seems like a cruel joke, a reminder of all the losses and absences that have happened and are happening in real time right now, the gaping holes in the rooms, the cold pouring in through the cracks, the heating broken and it’s Christmas so no one can fix it.
Last year, a few days before Christmas, Thomas and I went to see It’s A Wonderful Life playing on the big screen at IFC downtown. It’s A Wonderful Life is Thomas’s favorite movie. I had never seen it in its entirety because as a very young child, maybe age six or eight, I had seen part of it when it was on TV around this time of year and decided that I hated it because it was depressing and, in a very intelligent and commendable and reasonable move, decided to hold that opinion until I was in my thirties, when Thomas asked very gently if I had actually seen the whole movie and I had to say no. So we bundled up and went downtown and found our cushy creaky art-house movie-theater seats and I put my coat under my chair and put my legs in whatever weird way I always used to put my legs in my seat in movie theaters and proceeded to weep so furiously for so much of the movie that I was afraid someone would ask if I was ok. But of course nobody did because all of them were crying, too. When it was over and I came out of the theater back into the cold I wanted to run up to strangers on the street and ask if they had seen this movie, like Scrooge on Christmas ecstatically asking passersby if they know what day it is.
The thing is, I was right about It’s A Wonderful Life. It is depressing, and so is a A Christmas Carol— which I also love, which I also can’t really talk about without crying—and so is Christmas, when you get down to it, the holiday itself, both the biblical and the secular version. Christmas is an incredibly depressing holiday, one about desperation and loss, about what we don’t have measured against what we are supposed to have, about how expectation always leads to disappointment, about how everything is money and there is never enough of it, about puny little human celebrations of light and warmth thrown up against the massive and enveloping cruelty and darkness and cold. We try to fight a brutal and uncaring world with small and stupid and useless weapons, presents and songs and lights and decorations, tiny hands joined together, dancing as fast as we can.
In It’s A Wonderful Life, a man loses everything and very nearly decides not to live anymore— everybody knows about suicide rates and Christmas—crushed in the jaws of money and expectation in a world in which rich people get richer and their wealth runs on the fuel of everybody else’s ground-up desperate little lives. To experience the love his community can offer him, he has to reach the lowest point of his life, so that he can be lifted back upward by a collective grace. That grace is made out of the love he has generated amongst his neighbors over the course of his life in Bedford Falls, but it’s also made out of money, because that’s the language available. Even in this story about hope, the rules of the world’s cruelty do not ease. The evil rich man isn’t defeated, he’s just momentarily annoyed. The goodwill at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life is impossibly moving because it is a tiny gesture of warmth against an overwhelming and immutable cold, out beyond the warm windows.
Similarly, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is transformed through a long pageant of regret, sadness, and death, which occupies far more of the narrative space of the story than joy or brightness. Scrooge’s redemption is heartrending because it is unlikely; we respond to this story, as the audience, not because things like this happen on Christmas, but because they don’t. Christmas should be like this, but mostly it isn’t. The unlikeliness of this story—in which cruelty becomes kindness, miserliness generosity, and cold, warmth— is what renders it so murderously compelling, a fable to return to like a religious text, year after year.
Both of these are appropriate Christmas stories because they are dark and depressing and sad, because they encompass tragedy and do not turn away from it, because it’s Christmas so no one can fix it. Scrooge can buy the biggest turkey in the window, but his conversion is an isolated incident in a life made soft and comfortable by greed. The community that surrounds George Bailey with love does not undo the unkindness of the world he inhabits, or change its essential power structures. It merely for a moment lights a candle in an enormous darkness. These are stories about who gets to go inside the warm rooms, and about how many people do not, about how many rooms are not warm, about how often Christmas falls far short of the shining promises it makes every year. The bibical version of Christmas tells a similar story, too, if you want to go there: A poor family is cold, and is offered a minimal amount of charity; against the darkness, a miracle occurs.
Less honest Christmas stories show only the brightness and the warmth obligated by the holiday, but even that aggressive cheeriness— the big trees downtown, the department store windows, the incessantly jingling music— gives away the desperation and fear that undergirds the holiday. All of it is about trying to keep sadness at bay, walking fast down a dark street trying to only look at the warm doorway ahead and not at anything on either side, to defeat the cold and the darkness by refusing to see them. Christmas is about the crushing collusion of fantasy and reality, what we are supposed to celebrate and how our lives and their difficulties do not stop for those celebrations.
The last song on Bridgers’s EP is, of course, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Bridgers sings Judy Garland’s version of the song, the only acceptable one, the lyrics haunted by loss and sadness. In Meet Me in St Louis, the movie for which the song was originally written, Garland plays a mother who sings the song to comfort her daughter. The song is about choosing a temporary joy not despite despair but because of it. It is the bleak, wavering hope that things might be better sometime in the future, next time, if we make it through December. “One day soon we all will be together, if the fates allow,” is a queasy reassurance, not really a promise so much as an acknowledgement that promises can’t be made, that yes, we are supposed to be together at Christmas, but there are no guarantees and these things are not within our control. Who and what we love can be taken away at any moment. “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” is the only truthful assurance on Christmas.
Much famous Christmas music is equally bleak, and equally heartbreaking. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” is a song so guttingly sad it should be a controlled substance, and it crowns a whole genre of Christmas music in which a deadbeat dad makes a bunch of promises and then breaks them, perhaps the truest meaning of Christmas. “In The Bleak Midwinter,” maybe the ultimate piece of Christmas music, is an enormously beautiful song about the fact that it was very cold and dark on the day Christ was born. It ends with the singer despairing that they have nothing to give the Christ child and, in their poverty, can offer only their heart. Merle Haggard’s lament about not giving his girl a Christmas, about the brutal facts of the real world— money, unemployment, cold— running up against the expectations of the holidays, about the exhausted, beaten-down desire to simply make it to the end of the year and “be fine” fits right into the canon. Christmas is a country song: What we have lost, how we have failed, what little we can gather in the darkness.
Last night our heat finally came on, just in time for Christmas. But the easily solvable nature of this problem only underlines how most of the problems of Christmas are anything but solvable, and unlikely to be fixed soon or ever. I can’t go see my family, like so many other people I know, but that also pales in comparison to the massive losses all around me, to the unconscionable collective sadness that so many are carrying into the holiday this year.
The awareness of all this loss is the small flickering moment of hope in Christmas stories, set against an overwhelming darkness. Christmas is still largely about sadness, and this year in particular there is little to be done about that— it’s Christmas so no one can fix it— except to recognize that an acknowledgment of overwhelming sadness is built right into this holiday, its stories and traditions and music, and into the whole idea of holidays at all. The point is not the fixing of it, but rather the tiny kindness that arises from admitting it cannot be fixed, from seeing the unkindness of the holiday for what it is. At best, this year might force us to be more aware of the cold all around us and what futile gestures we might make against it, passing the hat around Bedford Falls, hoping against reason and good sense that a bad person might wake up in the morning transformed, making it through December, muddling through somehow.
merry christmas eve, or happy thursday. thank you so much for reading. if you enjoyed this, and want to read more, I would love it if you subscribed, and would love it if you recommended this newsletter to a friend, or many friends. you can also give a gift subscription, which makes a wonderful christmas gift, or a gift for any other occasion, or none at all. this post in part resulted from rereading this wonderful essay on A Christmas Carol, which I haven’t stopped being moved by since I first read it three years ago. I hope you’re all reading this somewhere warm; I hope you’re celebrating if you want to, and I hope you feel as little obligated to do so as possible. I’ll see you next week, when we’ll be back to a monday/wednesday schedule. after next week, in january, about half of the content of this newsletter, including the archives, will become paid-subscriber only, so now is a great time to subscribe. xo