Much to my surprise, I found, in a recent PBS Christmas special by Andrea Bocelli, that the most beautiful, moving and apt song was Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” What surprised me even more was that Bocelli sang the song in a duet with country singer Reba McEntire. While this prepared me for something trite and mushy, the song revealed, in Bocelli’s Italian-accented, pitch-perfect rendering, an elegantly simple melody—which, with the familiar melancholy lyrics, made it almost perfect for the season.
I’ll have a blue Christmas without you,
I’ll be so blue thinking about you,
Decorations of red on a green Christmastree
Won't be the same, if you're not here with me
And when those blue snowflakes start fallin'
And when those blue melodies start callin'
You'll be doin' all right, with your Christmas of white,
But I'll have a blue, blue Christmas.
Now clearly, Elvis wrote “Blue Christmas” as a kind of love song: while his love will be “doin’ all right with her Christmas of white,” he’ll be having a blue, blue Christmas without her. But the song works for almost everyone. Christmas is traditionally white and bright, sparkly and happy with friends and lovers and family all gathered in joyous harmony to celebrate the birth of the savior whose arrival promises peace, salvation and forgiveness to the world. As everyone knows, though, the reality is anything but. To begin with, the man-god of Christianity is almost nowhere to be found in the modern American (and increasingly worldwide) Christmas. The trading of gifts has become the centerpiece of this once holy day. Rather than a celebration of spiritual renewal, the day has become an orgy of gift buying and bargain hunting that stresses out even the most relaxed shopper. One has to calculate which friend or family member to gift, and in what measure: what did he/she give me last year, will my gift be a fair exchange, will he/she like it, will the kids remember this Christmas as the best ever, will their gifts induce sufficient envy for show-and-tell at school, and on and on. Frantic shopping for exhausted parents consumes the weeks before the holiday, as do arrangements for dinners, parties, card sending and painful decisions about whom to include and not to include. Whether or not one is staying within prudent bounds monetarily, the season’s spending is constantly being rated by economists as either sufficiently reckless to rescue the retailing year, or anemic to such an extent that businesses will be hard pressed to stay solvent. For the Christmas shopping season has become so central to all retailing, and retail sales to the economy, that if consumers don’t overextend themselves and max out their credit cards, the whole economic structure trembles. It is as if not shopping—being reasonable—has become the primary sin in America. All of which is a roadmap for the “blues.”
And this doesn’t even get to the interpersonal spectrum. All the pressure to perform, whether with the right presents or the proper and traditional Christmas decorations, ritual fare on the table, and holiday hilarity every minute, can’t help but result in disappointment and strife. No one really ever gets precisely what he or she wants, and if by some miracle (or pre-Christmas agreement) it happens, it’s simply not surprising enough to satisfy that inner childhood memory everyone carries around. The food never quite measures up to that inner family memory either. Then the undercurrent of resentment either stays suppressed and causes what the Italians call “agita,” or it explodes on the wings of too much egg nog and brandy into open warfare. We all know what that’s like.
So when Elvis Presley wrote his corny love song, he wrote more than he knew. Our modern Christmas is always without a “you” we are missing—whether through breakup, as Elvis meant it to be, or through absence of a more permanent kind. More, it is without the central “you” of the holiday, Christ himself. It is without his central gift to the world—peace and love and harmony and forgiveness. It is given over, instead, to the opposite of his humble birth in a manger: to the exaltation of pride and wealth and excess and an orgy of consumption that is sickening in its wastefulness, but is a boon to the profit mongers who rule the holiday as surely as if they had invented it. And though it is surely understandable that people everywhere in the northern hemisphere want and need a little light festival to fend off the coming blues of winter, there can be little doubt that blue has increasingly become its emblematic color.
Who knew Elvis would be the one to provide its most perfect expression?