(A scheduling note: This is our last newsletter of 2022. The Morning Coffee will return on 1/3/23. From all of us at the Capital-Star, best wishes for a peaceful and happy holiday season.)
I wasn’t going to write a Christmas column. After so many years, and so many column inches, I wasn’t sure I could add anything new to a time of year that, when it isn’t steeped in tradition, is too often steeped in cliché, and no small amount of holiday schmaltz.
But because this is my last column of 2022, and because we’re coming out of a year so fraught with drama, violence and division, I figured that if I could spread a little holiday cheer as you and yours get ready to go over the river and through the woods over these next few days, then another 750 words or so on the magic of the holiday season was probably worth it.
And in this instance, as is so often the case, it all comes down to the music. Or, more specifically, David Bowie’s 1977 duet with Bing Crosby on “Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.”
If you’ve never seen it, the duet, recorded for Crosby’s “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas,” television special, is peak 1970s cheese. The storyline has Crosby crashing at a long-lost relative’s house in England, when in strolls a neighbor … who just happens to be Bowie.
On paper, the pairing of the Thin White Duke with a 1940s crooner well into his twilight shouldn’t have worked. Legend has it that Bowie hated “The Little Drummer Boy.”
But after huddling with songwriter Ian Fraser, who co-wrote the ‘Peace on Earth‘ portion, and Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman, who also worked on the special, Bowie and Bing nailed the final arrangement, according to a CBC history of the song.
And what emerged was just magic.
There’s a soaring alchemy in the way Bowie plaintively sings “Peace on Earth, can it be?” as Crosby offers the traditional “rumpa-pum-pum” lyrics in counter-melody.
In the hands of Bowie, then the father of a 6-year-old son, the lyric sounds less like a question, and more like a plea, juxtaposed against the economic uncertainty of the 1970s and the open wounds of the U.S. exit from Vietnam that had not remotely begun to heal.
I have this version of the song, along with other holiday favorites that include The Waitresses’ classic “Christmas Wrapping,” Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” John Lennon’s “Happy XMas (War is Over),” and, yes, Billy Squier’s “Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You,” on a Spotify playlist that I start playing during the second week of December and don’t turn off until around Twelfth Night.
The songs on that playlist, which once lived on a cassette, and later, a CD (because, hey, I’m an 80s kid), are the sound of the radio playing on a cold December night in Connecticut, as we left my Nonna’s house late on Christmas Eve.
I remember watching as the holiday lights of downtown Hartford strobed past the passenger-side window, the chill of the glass against my cheeks, as I strained to see every light, and my pop music-mad ears strained to memorize every note. The cultural context, too, had changed: It wasn’t Vietnam, it was the threat of nuclear war with the former Soviet Union.
Turn on that playlist today — decades later — and the feel of the window, the chill in the air, the happy eye-strained feeling you have on Christmas Eve, and the smell of the Feast of the Seven Fishes comes racing back as if it were yesterday.
Years later, when I became a dad, I started playing those songs for my daughter. She’s 17 now, and after years of being exposed to them, she can sing most of them back word-for-word.
When we’re in the car together, making that last run to Target or Giant, we’ll turn the volume up, and belt them out together. You should hear our version of Bob & Doug McKenzie’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
To a much older me, Bowie asking “Peace on Earth, can it be?” has taken on an urgency that it didn’t have when I was a teenager. And when he sings “I pray my wish, will come true, for my child, and your child too,” that people of “goodwill will live in peace,” it hits me right between the eyes.
Against the backdrop of antisemitic and anti-LGTBQ rhetoric and violence, a war in Ukraine, attacks on voting and reproductive rights, an uncertain economy, a lingering pandemic, and a sickeningly destructive gun violence epidemic that will leave too many tables empty this holiday season, singing about peace on Earth seems naively optimistic.
And more necessary than ever.
I still believe there’s more that unites us than divides us. I still have depthless faith in human potential — and saw it in the scores of tiny good deeds people did for each other in the darkest days of the pandemic.
So as my little interfaith family lights Hanukkah candles and says Christmas prayers, I’m offering one for my child, and your child too, and for all of us.
For a better world. For a kinder and more just world. For a brighter world.
I’ll play Bowie and Bing and sing along.
Peace on Earth. Can it be?
Yes it can.
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