Joni Mitchell's "River" isn't a Christmas song per se, but it's a song I inevitably find myself listening to constantly come December. "River" originally appeared on Mitchell's 1971 album "Blue," her masterful meditation on heartbreak. "The 'Blue' album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals," Mitchell told Cameron Crowe in a 1979 interview for Rolling Stone. "I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy."
"River" is one of the album's loneliest moments, with Mitchell using Christmas as a backdrop against which to paint a narrative of loss and longing. Christmas is approaching - "They're cutting down trees / They're putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace," she sings - but the song's narrator is not in the holiday spirit at all, still reeling from a painful breakup. The climate of Southern California, where it "stays pretty green" even in December, is also not particularly conducive to holiday spirit. "I wish I had a river I could skate away on," she laments. The music is equally melancholic, recasting the "Jingle Bells" as a plaintive minor-key piano melody.
What I find so powerful about "River" is how expertly Mitchell juxtaposes depression with the expectation of cheer around Christmastime. It's a song that acknowledges it is perfectly normal to be sad around the holidays, even when you're constantly bombarded by festive images everywhere you go. "Laughing and crying, you know it's the same release," Mitchell sings on "People's Parties," off 1974's "Court and Spark," and "River" allows for a similar cathartic release.
Most of my other favorite Christmas songs have melancholic strains. Perhaps the closest analogue to the sentiment of "River" is Bing Crosby's classic "White Christmas," the best-selling single in the history of recorded music. Like Mitchell's song, "White Christmas" is all about longing: "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know," Crosby wistfully sings. On one level, it's also about someone in a warm climate pining for a picturesque snow-covered Christmas tableau. The Arizona Biltmore, the iconic art deco resort in Phoenix, Ariz. that was a frequent retreat for Hollywood stars, claims that Irving Berlin composed the song lounging by the resort's Cantina Pool in January 1939. As a Phoenix native myself, its origin story is part of why the song resonates so deeply with me.
Yet, the sadness of "White Christmas" seems to run deeper than mere climate-related reasons. Berlin himself, even as a Russian Jewish immigrant, had reason to find the holiday sad: his 3-week-old son died on Christmas Day in 1928, and every year after he and his wife would visit his son's grave. This nostalgia for better, happier times runs through "White Christmas," even as it ends in a more hopeful place than "River" - "May all your Christmases be white," Crosby sings in its final line.
My favorite modern Christmas song, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," performed by the incomparable Darlene Love, is equally plaintive at its core. As in "River," its narrator finds herself lonely and alienated from the yuletide cheer surrounding them. "They're singing, 'Deck The Halls' / But it's not like Christmas at all," Love cries out on the chorus. It's incredibly affecting because of her soulful vocal performance, which wrings every ounce of emotion from the song, which was penned by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.
Yet, Love is able to find hope in a song about feeling isolated and alone during the holidays. As she explained in a New York Times interview last year, "When I'm singing it, I'm telling everybody to come home to their loved ones. I'm inviting families to get back together again."
What I love about "River," "White Christmas" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is that they all recognize how melancholic the holidays can be for so many people. These songs acknowledge how easy it is to feel sad, even in the face of the unrelenting cheer of the Christmas season; perhaps more importantly, when I'm feeling particularly wistful each December, these songs remind me just how common that feeling is.
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