The trouble with Christmas songs

We are both crying so hard I start to think we might have to pull the car over. It is Christmas Eve 2018 and we’re driving to my mum’s. It’s been six months since my fourth miscarriage. To brighten up our 40-mile pilgrimage up the A1(M), we’ve had bakery coffee, cinnamon buns, and Dan’s annual Christmas playlist is turned up high. Until a minute ago, we had been determinedly jolly. We would not be defeated. It is Christmas!

The song that has set us both off is Tim Minchin’s White Wine In The Sun. It’s the first time either of us have heard it, Dan having added it to the playlist on the recommendation of a friend the night before, after a conversation about our favourite lesser-known Christmas songs; welcome alternatives to the annual cycle of Wham! and Wizzard. 

If – like me and Dan – you’re a bit wordy, not especially religious, but love Christmas all the same, it is an excellent recommendation (Sample lyric: ‘And yes, I have all of the usual objections to consumerism/The commercialisation of an ancient religion/And the westernisation of a dead Palestinian.’) However, if – like 2018 me and Dan – it’s taking everything you have not to think about how much you want a baby, it is a terrible recommendation. I actually can’t think of how it could be worse. (Unless, perhaps, there’s a Johnny Cash song I don’t know called ‘Miscarriage Blues’?)

If you don’t know White Wine In The Sun, about halfway through the song switches up a gear from meandering thoughts about Christmas socks, chocs, and getting freaked out by churches, building to an emotional crescendo describing how it feels to introduce a new baby to your family. ‘These are the people who’ll make you feel safe’, Minchin sings. ‘And you, my baby girl/ My jetlagged infant daughter/ You’ll be handed round the room/ Like a puppy at a primary school.’ 

In the car that Christmas Eve, the song’s change in direction assaults us with all the force of a handbrake turn. In the space of about 15 seconds, I’ve gone from smiling along benignly to heavy sobbing. It’s the kind of crying you do with your whole body, the tears pooling in the creases of your neck, wetting your collarbone, nose streaming, your shoulders aching, throat constricted. I cry until the song ends. I cry until I feel winded. When I see that Dan is crying too, I cry even harder.   

Ironically, the reason Dan and I had been thinking about alternative Christmas songs in the first place was because the usual festive soundtrack can be hard to hear, hard to bear (though we may not have communicated this in so many words to our friend). Quite apart from the traditional carols for a holiday that celebrates a baby’s birth, at this time of year there are also far too many pop music ‘baby, please come homes’. ‘All I want for Christmas is you, baby’. Even East 17 in their polar-white Parkas let you down: ‘Baby, if you’ve got to go away…’  

Christmas can be hard enough, frankly, child-centric as it is, and with the pregnancy announcements that seem to cluster around this time. Not to mention the performative acts of modern parenting that grow more conspicuous each year: the Elf on the Shelf, Santa trains and trails,

Fortunately, the same friend who suggested White Wine In The Sun also made a second Christmas song recommendation that I will always be grateful for: When The Thames Froze, by Smith & Burrows. It is gentle and wistful – but above all hopeful. It has a choir and a silver band, without any forced jollity. I’ve listened to it every year since, often on repeat. (One verse begins ‘God damn this Government’, which resonates this year especially). 

Last Christmas, it came on as Dan and I drove home from a family dinner. And once again, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably in a moving vehicle. We’d moved house the week before. I was 10 weeks pregnant. We’d just been discharged from the recurrent miscarriage clinic and were back in mainstream antenatal care, nervously awaiting our dating scan. I was taking progesterone. This time, they weren’t tears of abject frustration and sorrow, they were tears of a painful kind of hope. A hope my body didn’t really know how to accommodate alongside the fear and muscle memory of loss. 

This is how the song goes:

So tell everyone, that’s there’s hope in your heart/ Tell everyone, or it’ll tear you apart.’ 

And then, a couplet later:

The years go by so fast, let’s hope the next beats the last’.   

It’s as good a message at this difficult time of year as I can think of. Not least this particular, unusual pandemic-blighted year. An anthem for anyone afraid, anyone grieving, anyone still waiting and still hoping, in spite of everything. 

This Christmas, for the first time since that Christmas Eve car journey two years ago, Dan and I listened to White Wine In The Sun again. It was the day we put up our Christmas tree – another tradition that involves bakery treats and the first Christmas playlist of the year. We’d just put Edward in his new highchair (bought in anticipation of weaning in January) so he could see the tree. Dan pressed play and we sat in silence, on either side of our son, listening, remembering. Just the three of us…and Sophie the Giraffe. We looked at each other and at the bare tree waiting to be decorated. A bauble with Edward’s name on it in a box on our dining table in front of us.

And, of course, I cried. I cried out of joy, which I felt cresting inside. I cried because of how lucky I felt. I cried knowing this moment would soon be over. In a minute or so, it’d be gone for ever, lost in a tangle of fairy lights, phone notifications, strength-sapping news briefings, recycling, wrapping, adding to cart, nappy changes, sorry-you-were-out cards, and endlessly microwaving the same tepid cup of coffee again and again. 

But, above all, I cried because the site of this year’s happiness was – is – so close to old wounds. I don’t expect I will listen to White Wine In The Sun again. I can’t see it going quietly, blending into the background noise of December, sandwiched between Shakin’ Stevens and The Pogues. It will be kept, I think, as a perfect and painful reminder of everything we lost – and everything we’ve gained. 

Wishing you a peaceful, hopeful Christmas, wherever you are. Jennie xxx

4 Comments

  1. What an emotional, beautifully written post – thank you. I completely relate to the feelings in it, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard the song (probably a good thing!).
    Wishing you a healthy, happy Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You popped up just when I needed this so thank you so much. The last two Decembers we have had a loss, one at 5 weeks and one at 11 and this last year we have put it all on hold to grieve and recover and just get through the difficult year we have all had. I have always loved Christmas but now the build up feels so different and holds so many hard memories. I love reading about hope and it has given me such a warm feeling to think of you both and Edward for his first Christmas. So thank you again and have a lovely Christmas together.x

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for the post and for your comments on how difficult Christmas can be. It certainly is for us as we’ve been pregnant for the last three Christmases and we still don’t have a baby at home with us. This year I’m not pregnant – delays with recurrent miscarriage testing and ivf treatment this year followed but our third ivf round in August (which didn’t work) means we haven’t kept up our painful ‘annual tradition’. I’m avoiding all triggers this Christmas time but am ever hopeful that maybe, just maybe, by next Christmas our luck will have changed xx have a lovely Christmas with Edward xx

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A beautifully written post Jenny. I can totally relate having lost my daughter at 8days old in November 2018, followed by 6 miscarriages and now holding my 10week old son. It’s been a long old journey and I really resonate with ‘this years happiness being so close to old wounds’.

    I hope you have a nice Christmas. Thank you for writing this. Lucy xx

    Liked by 1 person

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