What Joni Mitchell Taught Me about Christmas

It was 1971. I was a freshman in college. I had left my Chicago home in September and was feeling homesick. My college was located in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It is incredibly beautiful there, but the weather is imposing. Come Thanksgiving, it was always cold and overcast, wavering between snow and sleet, lowering levels of melatonin and precipitating episodes of young-adult melancholy.

I lived in a dorm that was filled with folks who had excellent taste in music. Several suite mates had really nice sound systems (ok, record players), and I remember being absolutely captivated by a soaring soprano, whose crystal clear voice tapped into my angst-ridden holiday mood and in a single phrase, created an indelible snapshot of my longing. It was Joni Mitchell on her Blue album singing, “It’s coming on Christmas . . . “

I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

That was almost 50 years ago. When I hear that song today, I am carried across time.  I can conjure up my impressionable younger self and, like ornaments on a Christmas tree, hang memories on every part of that song. I remember finding reindeer tracks on the front steps of the house I grew up in. I remember going with my Dad to pick out the perfect Christmas tree at a local lot. I remember ice skating at Keystone Field and coming home with frozen cheeks, wet socks and mittens and warming up with hot chocolate.

I remember the magic of the first snowfall and the initial delight in clearing it off the sidewalk. I remember Salvation Army bell ringers and the thrill I had in dropping coins in their red buckets. I remember making popcorn strings to put on the tree that smelled of the North Woods. I remember making fudge and cookies and licking the beaters clean. I remember waiting in the cold for the El to come and traveling to downtown Chicago to see the Christmas tree at Marshall Fields, and walking up the Magic Mile with its sparkling lights.

I remember the first Christmas after my father died. I was 14.  I remember trying so hard to re-create the magic, all the while experiencing his absence both in terms of no longer having a father and in not knowing how to put a tree in a stand or put on the lights. I remember the first Christmas away from home, feeling untethered and uncertain with who I was and what I wanted in life. I remember my first Christmas after my husband died, numb with grief, outwardly keeping up the pretense that there was something wonderful in the season.

Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had

I have a huge collection of CDs and Christmas music makes up the bulk of them. I have “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer”, (actually saw Elmo & Patsy sing this live back in the early ‘80’s), an extraordinary playlist of sacred and profane CDs crafted by a dear friend who put together a new one each year for 10 years running, Mannheim Steamroller, The Boston Pops, Canadian Brass, Barbra Streisand, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Oh, and Elvis.

Musical memories of live performances include the Christmas concerts in elementary school and going caroling with my local church youth group. This was back in the days before we had any sensitivity to anything other than White Anglo-Saxon Protestant views, and so sang “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and “Silent Night” in our public school best without a thought we might be offending someone.

When Santa finished bringing presents to my house, he would turn on the record player and leave to the sound of Madame Schumann-Heink singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. As I grew older, I sang or played oboe in performances of Handel’s Messiah. I did have exposure to the sacred music and traditions of other faiths when I was younger, but it was quite limited. The Dreidel Song was all I knew about Hanukkah, and because my mother had spent time in Mexico, I knew some Posada songs.

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
Singing songs of joy and peace

My mother’s capacity for putting up decorations diminished as she aged, but not her joy of the Season. She held out for a live tree for many years, but eventually succumbed to just putting up a small artificial tree. She carefully kept wrapping paper from gifts received over the years, never re-using it, but always remembering what had come in the package. I suspect I will follow in her footsteps.

I no longer opt for a live tree. My artificial tree is still full-size, but honestly, that may change in the coming years. The effort involved in packing and unpacking all of the tchotchke is outweighing the enjoyment of the memories triggered.

This year, of course, is unlike any Christmas season in my 68 years on the planet. I understand that tree sales are up. People are being encouraged to share local spots where there are particularly lovely decorations, so they can drive by, wearing masks, safely observing appropriate physical distancing. But the excitement and delight are not there for me. It is more like a Charlie Brown Christmas.

This year I will connect with others safely over Zoom. I will send cards with messages of “Stay Safe!”  I will indulge in a meal of favorite tidbits while watching “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It will be what it is, this Covid-Christmas.

And yes, one year I did get skates for Christmas.

Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

Songwriters: Joni Mitchell
River lyrics © Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

3 comments

  1. Yes, Christmas is definitely strange this year. We opted for our mother’s tiny pre-lit tree, the wreath that someone sent us, and that is about it. The effort just doesn’t seem worth it. Yet, we wanted to do something. Just now discussing what to make for Christmas dinner with our “pod.” But also wondering who they have been in contact with and how many degrees of separation is safe.

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