When I turned 13, I became a pain in the ass.
I’d been a good kid up until then. But when age 11 came around, I could feel a slow eruption start inside me. It felt as if everything I had liked was now driving me up the wall. Puberty, right? Now, at age 60, I know that. But I didn’t know that then. I thought I was coming apart.
That was how I felt a few minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve, 1971. I was lying in bed. My parents and sisters were asleep and, I’m sure, literally dreaming of those sugar plums. They were thrilled with the whole Christmas lollapalooza: the tree, turkey, gifts, neighbourhood parties, and, especially, the Christmas music.
Those songs, especially the religious ones, left me flat — because religion was beginning to mean nothing to me. The stable story, which had made me wide-eyed with wonder as a little kid, now had me mumbling, “How do we know that even happened?”
But I was about to be saved. I turned my radio on. It was tuned to 1050 CHUM, the Toronto station for rock and roll. Rock was the only thing that interested me then. A song finished. The DJ spoke in a hallowed voice, close to a whisper. “It’s almost time. Here’s one to take you into Christmas… Booker T and the MGs and ‘Time Is Tight’.”
I thought he was going to play “Silent Night.” A guitar and bass started with a funky rhythm. Then the drums kicked in. Eventually, an organ faded in with a single note that the organist seemed to hold forever. It was coolest music I had ever heard.
“This isn’t a Christmas song,” I thought. But as I listened, it actually did feel like Christmas in a way I couldn’t explain. All I knew is that I was happy at a time when I couldn’t seem to help feeling irritated. By the time it ended, everything that had bugged me was now a joy. I was even buying back into the stable story.
From that moment on, “Time Is Tight” became my Christmas anthem. That was important – I had decided this. Not my parents or my teachers or religions.
But when I was about 30, I had what felt like puberty again. I was annoyed and sick of everything. My whole life felt as if I were there to make money and buy insurance and get dressed up for work. I was driving home a few days before Christmas when Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” came on the radio. And this line hit me: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” “Yeah, that’s what Jesus was talking about,” I thought. So “Sounds of Silence” became that year’s Christmas song.
I decided to make the adoption of an officially non-Christmas song into a personal Christmas song an annual thing – because the songs about snow and chestnuts and silent nights still weren’t bringing the power of Christmas home to me. And what is that power? It’s about a man named Jesus who arrived to do good. Plain and simple. Take away what we have decided Christmas is about — a boon to retailers, stuffing ourselves silly, worrying way too much about whether the tree is a balsam or a spruce — and focus on this little baby and what he was here to do: to show us a way to treat each other right. And that would include everyone.
Over the coming years, I chose, among others, The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Sting’s “Soul Cages,” and Springsteen’s “Born To Run.” All three are about people finding their way through hard times.
This past August, I heard the Jackson 5’s “ABC” on the radio. The Toronto van attack had happened that spring, there were gang shootings across the city and a young man had just sprayed a section of the city’s beloved Danforth with bullets, killing two and seriously injuring many others. A new revelation about Catholic priests abusing children, this time in Pennsylvania, came to light. Politicians around the world were hammering each other. Refugees were still searching for safe homes. There was bad weather, the result of climate change, everywhere.
This line in “ABC” spoke to me: “That’s how easy love can be.” I thought of our gloomy times and this line and then picked “ABC” to be the 2018 Christmas song.
Then Aretha Franklin died. When the accolades were pouring in, everyone would point to her anthem, “Respect,” as the essence of Aretha. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” she sang. A testament to treating everyone right – especially those who have had their human rights trampled upon. I listened to it again and thought, “A-ha. A new Christmas song.”
So, thanks to Aretha – let’s all learn to respect each other. And keep it that way. Which was the point of Jesus’s teaching in the first place. Merry Christmas.