How do you like your Christmas songs? Schmalzy soft jazz, White Christmas and all that? Gritty like the Pogues? (please, no!) Or maybe with a tongue firmly in cheek, like the Bare Naked Ladies?
And of course there are the Christmas blues songs. B B King with Merry Christmas Baby; Freddie King’s Christmas Tears; Koko Taylor’s Merry Merry Christmas; Roy Milton’s Christmas Time Blues; Bessie Smith’s At the Christmas Ball Blues; or maybe Joe Bonamassa’s Lonesome Christmas. All on the general theme of – it’s Christmas and my baby done left me / I ain’t got a baby / my baby and me are apart.
But then there’s Victoria Spivey’s Christmas Morning Blues, where she’s lamenting the fact that her man’s in jail; John Lee Hooker’s Blues for Christmas, with the plaintive “I ain’t got a dime;” and Blind Blake’s Lonesome Christmas Blues where he remembers last Christmas when he was in jail, and this Christmas isn’t much better – “I’m sick and I can’t get well.” Tough times don’t stop for Christmas. Just ask the millions living in war torn Syria or Yemen or South Sudan; other those going hungry in East Africa, or the brutalized Rohingya people of Burma. Or even the more than 40m Americans living in poverty.
Truth is, the world can be a tough place, and none of us are immune from tough times – family problems, health problems, relationship problems. The celebrations of the holiday season don’t make these go away.
It’s hard to find a blues song that taps into the heart of Christmas. And by that I mean hope. G.K. Chesterton, the writer, poet, and philosopher said that “hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.” So it was with the first Christmas – a family living under the occupation of a brutal, despotic regime; a new baby, brought into the world in the most humble and poor of circumstances; the birth announced to a bunch of rough, uneducated shepherds; the new family becoming refugees, forced to move to a foreign country. Pretty tough circumstances.
And yet the story is shot through with hope – that change and redemption is possible. That things can be different. That the power of love unleashed into the world through the coming of this baby can ultimately be more powerful than all the tyrants and war-mongers and greed-merchants and liars. That justice and fairness can prevail.
Hope. New possibilities. Change. It’s what Bethlehem is all about.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.