by Joe Shea
December 27, 2013
IS CHRISTMAS BROKEN?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- For my money, the only Christmas album worth a damn is the late John Fahey's "The New Possibility," 14 seasonal songs played sparely and solo by just Fahey on his six-string acoustic guitar. That album sold 100,000 copies when it first came out 45 years ago and has stayed in print continually since 1968.
Fahey never really liked "The New Possibility." He once said there were more mistakes on it than any of the other albums he recorded, yet it was the hands-down favorite of many of his fans. I like to think its popularity stems from the way "The New Possibility" rescues Christmas music from the sentimental and treacly.
For me. the undercurrent of melancholy and minor chords that mark songs like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" or "What Child Is This" are more reflective of the love and longing that come with the shortest days of the year and the long nights of the Solstice and Yuletide.
Behind the bright lights and tinsel, there is an undercurrent of sadness that come with Christmas. It is a time we acutely feel the loss of family and friends, the empty chairs at the gatherings, and note the address cards in the Rolodex for people who aren't with us anymore.
After more than a half-century on this earth, the ranks of family and friends have thinned. And the memories of the missing share equal billing with memories of the joys. Both seem to come flooding back during the gray days and black nights of December.
I see the Christmases in our cramped little house, and remember the anticipation of getting the gifts we pestered our parents for. We never had a lot, but my mom and dad never scrimped during the Yuletide.
I remember the last Christmas Eve that my father was alive, my freshman year of collage, when all of us were in various states of inebriation from our respective Christmas parties at our jobs. Alcohol and the Yuletide went together, and sitting at the kitchen table that night, I felt I had passed into manhood, even after being sick later that night and hungover in the morning.
Christmas Day was always the big feast day, but after my father's death, we switched to Christmas Eve, as was the custom of all the Polish families in my hometown. It meant a big dinner that night at my mother's house, followed by exchanging and opening gifts around the tree. The family grew, with girlfriends and spouses and nieces and nephews added to the original cast, but the feeling of warmth and love never changed.
Not all those feasts were happy ones for me. Twenty-five Decembers ago, I got pink-slipped from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and wondered what was going to happen next. I didn't know that within two months I would be working in Vermont, meet the woman who would become my wife, and be set upon a winding path that would take me from the highs of a year at Harvard to the lows of exile in a bread factory to reclaiming my journalism career and taking it to new heights.
My mother died five Augusts ago, and with her went the tradition of the big Christmas dinner. Other family members have tried to pick up the slack, but it has not been the same. Her love filled the little house on North Street, and when the cancer she fought for six years finally got her, the void she left was huge.
We sold her house a few months later, but I still carry the house key on my key chain. I know the key belongs to a house I can never return to. But I still carry it as a reminder, like the memories that still pop up in mind when I least expect them, of a time that was a lot simpler.
Those are some of the memories of love and loss that haunt me in the Yuletide, and that is why the reflective chords of Fahey's album fit my mood this time of year.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.