A number of years ago I was explaining to my son Gregory that one of my favorite Christmas songs, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," has a strong undertone of sadness to it. Even the title is suffused with wistfulness: the merry little Christmas. And then those haunting lines that follow: "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow." What are the odds that the fates are going to allow that? "From now on our troubles will be out of sight." Really? In what human life is that going to be true?
Gregory, with his ever-present gift for sarcasm, tried to ridicule my song analysis by providing a parallel deconstruction of other Christmas songs. "It's the hap-hap-happiest time of the year" - ah, this shows the clear bravado of the songwriter trying to talk himself, and us, into accepting extravagant and unfounded claims for the stress-filled month of December....
But I was right: beneath the surface (or even on the surface) of many beloved Christmas songs lies a profound melancholy. "I'll be home for Christmas - if only in my dreams." "Rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing." And then there's John Lennon's hymn of resignation: "And so this is Christmas."
I read a beautiful essay yesterday, "In Praise of Melancholy": "Melancholy is a species of sadness that arises when we are open to the
fact that life is inherently difficult and that suffering and
disappointment are core parts of universal experience. It’s not a
disorder that needs to be cured."We experience melancholy because the things we love are transient, regret is endemic to human life, and conflicts are inescapable between goods that cannot be simultaneously achieved, e.g., to feel secure and yet be free. And these regrets and conflicts loom especially large, I might add, as the year draws to its close.
Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus also see in the promise of this holy night the looming shadow of the cross to come. And we know just how far we are from realizing the angelic promise of peace on earth, good will to humankind. We've been telling this same story for nigh on 2000 years, and where has it gotten us?
For me, personally, the melancholy of the season lies this year in my imminent return to Indiana, where I'll teach one more semester at DePauw. In less than a month I'll be in my sweet little room in Greencastle, living with my dear friend Julia, in the place where as I was as happy as I've ever been in my life. And yet I'll be a thousand miles away from a family who needs me, a grandchild I adore, a dog who is crazed with enthusiasm every time I produce the leash. My heart is breaking already at the thought of it. I bought the plane tickets yesterday for my four trips home: for Kataleya's birthday in February, spring break in March, a church women's breakfast in April, Gregory's graduation in May. Each trip is so short! Three of the four are just a weekend. How will I come back to my dear life here only to rip myself away from it a scant 72 hours later? And then have to rip myself away from my dear life in Indiana forever come June?
But there is no point in wallowing in pre-sadness, grief for sorrows that lie some distance in the future. Tonight I'll have a merry little Christmas with Rich, Gregory, Christopher, Ashley, Kataleya, Tank, and Snickers. I'll go to church and sing the beloved carols of the
season, hear the beautiful story of the birth of a savior, and light
candles to herald the return of light to the world. I'll mean every word of "Joy to the world." Just for tonight, I'll rest beside the weary road and hear - really hear - the angels sing.