Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dammit, John Prine, Don’t Do This To Me


“Silent Night, All Day Long,” from A John Prine Christmas (1994)

This year I’ve been finely honing my curmudgeonly skills. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Christmas, which, as you may have figured out, is a week from today. In the interest of full disclosure, there’s one thing I most assuredly don’t hate about it: Doing stuff for our kids, who, are, like all kids, maddeningly complex and better, by far, than anything else I’ve ever done with my life.
But the rest of it? Meh.
Of course, I loved Christmas when I was young. I mean, it was awesome, right? I can’t for the life of me figure out how my parents made Christmas work for eleven children of the baby boom and whatever followed the baby boom. My mom used to say that whenever a new baby came along, she’d sew a new pillow case and open the ones she’d made before, redistributing the down feathers from the old ones to the new like some kind of pillow-socialist, so everybody’d have an ever-thinner but never altogether empty one to lay his or her head on.
True story, by the way.
And yet, every 25th of December, in the early hours of the morning – and you’d better believe not a nanosecond before – there’d be a sea of presents from one end of the living room to the other. Not the latest and greatest and most expensive presents, and plenty of them were homemade, but the sheer quantity of swag was enough to make an adolescent head spin. Man, did they deliver.
The thing is (and I know I’ve mentioned all this before), Christmas was important to them. My parents got engaged on Christmas Eve 1943, when Pfc. Paul J. von Ebers, U.S. Army, 66th Infantry Division, probably wasn’t supposed to be in Waukegan, Illinois, where, to the best of my knowledge, there were no army bases at the time. And a year later, on Christmas Eve 1944, my father was on board the HMS Cheshire crossing the English channel for Cherbourg, France, with his regiment, the 262nd, and another, the 260th, when their companion ship, a Belgian liner called the SS Leopoldville, was torpedoed by a U-boat and sank, taking with it more than 800 American soldiers. That’ll make you appreciate Christmas at home with your bride-to-be, I’d imagine.
And so I think that had a lot to do with the way my parents literally poured everything they had into Christmas for us. Anyway, whatever it was, they did it right.
But sometimes it feels like Christmas was stolen from us. Because it used to be this nearly perfect thing, you know, and now it’s … teevee commercials that start in mid-October, and rich people getting richer and buying Lexuses (Lexi?) while the rest of us barely make ends meet. Not for lack of trying, and not for lack of desire, I’ll never be able to do for my kids what my parents did for us. We’ll get them stuff, of course; and they, being great kids, will be genuinely grateful. They always are, and I love them for that.
What’s missing, I think, is the atmosphere that I associate with childhood Christmases. It wasn’t just about stuff, it was about family traditions, spending time together, and, believe it or not, even through Vietnam and antiwar protests and Watergate and two decades of upheaval and uncertainty, it really was about all that peace on earth and goodwill towards your fellow humans stuff. Really. It was.
Now, though, we’re too stressed out to create that kind of atmosphere. We’re worried about where the money’s going to come from, and we’re too busy bending our schedule to fit everyone else’s, running from one house to another, not spending much time together, not making traditions of our own, not taking the time for all that peace on earth stuff. Not, you know, just enjoying it.
Maybe some people are just better at Christmas than I am, but it kind of bums me out.
Then along comes The Maywood Mailman with a song like “Silent Night, All Day Long” and it reminds me of the way those childhood Christmases were. It’s sappy, and kind of romantic, and makes me think of my parents, who could be deadly serious a lot of the time, but who seemed genuinely to love Christmas and to get it, if you know what I mean, and … oh, goddam you, John Prine, how dare you make me all sentimental and miss my mom and dad and start to think maybe Christmas isn’t so bad after all.
Well, at least there’s this:


It was Christmas in prison
And the food was real good
We had turkey and pistols
Carved out of wood …
Ah, that’s more like it.
Anyway, just remember. As My Sainted Irish Mother™ was wont to say: A week from tomorrow it’ll all be over …

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