When I wrote a Christmas song eight years ago, I wanted to root it in the mundane. It was my attempt at a kind of secular carol, in which the meaning of Christmas is firmly humanist, the defiant joy of the season being a fight back against the darkness and difficulties of life. So it begins, in true Christmas spirit, with the results of a medical test. “When someone very dear calls you with the words ‘Everything’s all clear’/ That’s what you want to hear, but you know it might be different in the new year.”
You might think that’s a bleak opening for a song called “Joy”, but I was being deliberately realist in tone. The realism hits me even harder this year. There can’t be many families now whose Christmas won’t be affected, one way or another, by the results of a Covid test. Loss, and absence, and isolation will be the dark notes underpinning all our attempts to celebrate, but still, celebrate we will, as best we can.
That song of mine goes on to make the point that joy doesn’t cancel out sadness, the two exist side by side, and sadness makes us appreciate joy. “It’s because of the dark, we see the beauty in the spark.” The ever present shadows play a part in our determination to enjoy ourselves, to try, even temporarily, to drown them out with light. “That’s why we hang the lights so high.”
On that same album I recorded a cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, the lyrics to which also now seem startlingly prescient. Written during wartime, it is a song about separation, a dream of Christmases to come, full of stoic determination to hang on until the dream can come true. The original lyrics were considered so depressing that they have been altered more than once, the first change coming when Judy Garland sang it in Meet Me in St Louis. The opening line – “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last” – was, perhaps understandably, changed to the now familiar, “let your heart be light”.
A while later, Frank Sinatra removed a little more of the melancholy, so that when he came to the lines, “Through the years we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” he took out the muddling and sang instead, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
I’ve always liked the original though. This year more than ever we’ll all be doing a lot of muddling through, and making the best of things, and hanging on stoically for better times ahead. I don’t think any of us is going to be in the mood for articles or programmes about how to create The Perfect Christmas.
Which – and bear with me here – makes me think of Dr Donald Winnicott, and his theories about parenting. He was the paediatrician who, in the 1950s, introduced the notion of the “good enough mother”, who meets most of her child’s needs, but fewer as the child grows. Winnicott believed that the good enough mother might in fact be better than the “perfect mother”, enabling a growing child to adapt to the world, accept occasional disappointment and be able to cope. Which brings me back to Christmas. This year none of us can have the perfect one, and might a good enough Christmas actually be better?
I have already taken the pressure off myself, and accepted a bit of failure upfront. I won’t be able to see all my family, I won’t be having friends over for drinks and lunches, I will be buying fewer presents, it will all be less of a big deal than usual. But my world has shrunk in these past months, and as my options have narrowed, so have my ambitions. My goals now are small; my targets, I hope, reachable.
So what would be a good enough Christmas for me? Being able to throw my arms around my kids. With a week or so of isolation, and then some Covid tests, and a little bit of luck, I’m hoping this dream will come true, and that for a few days I can be indoors with four people I love, and talk and cook and laugh, and hug them till they beg to escape. And I wish that much joy to all of you, too, I wish you a good enough Christmas.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special