‘So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”
In his suite at New York City’s St. Regis hotel in late October of 1971, with the Vietnam War still raging, John Lennon roughed out the lyrics to what would become “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” The song was loosely based on the tune of an old English ballad “Skewball,” known better on this side of the pond from the 1963 interpretation “Stewball” by Peter, Paul & Mary.
With backing vocals added on Halloween by 30 children of the Harlem Community Choir, the single, released in clear green vinyl, hit #3 on the Billboard Christmas Singles chart and went on to become a classic. Sadly, its producer, Phil Spector, went to prison for shooting Lana Clarkson to death. Lennon was gunned down in December 1980. The violence continues. No justice, no peace.
In 1919, in the immediate aftermath of another war, Irish poet W. B. Yeats penned “The Second Coming,” in which he reflected that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” In the closing lines of his sundering depiction of a world gone wrong, Yeats asks “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
Slouching here at the close of 2018, with our 21st century Bethlehem a city in Pennsylvania in which the state’s attorney general is called to speak of more than a thousand children abused in Catholic dioceses across the state, it seems we are all uncentered. The beast is abroad and rampant. Indeed, in this season of peace on earth, everything is more ripped to pieces.
In December of 1943, at the height of another bloody war, Edward R. Murrow boarded a Lancaster bomber for the first Royal Air Force run bringing hard rain from the sky back home to Berlin. His report on CBS radio had his customary admixture of ironic self-consciousness and evocative depiction: “I began to breathe and to reflect again — that all men would be brave if only they could leave their stomachs at home.” Upon making it back to base alive and in one piece, he added, with unfiltered access to what still seared behind his eyes: “Men die in the sky while others are roasted alive in their cellars. Berlin last night wasn’t a pretty sight.”
We have no Murrow to be our spirit guide through the flak in the warring atmosphere of today. The media ecosphere has exploded into fragments. The last major water-cooler TV series was “Seinfeld,” which went off the air 20 years ago.
I ask friends what series to watch these days and it is invariably one of literally hundreds of obscure titles on Netflix or Amazon or some cable wannabe. I won’t watch it in real-time anyway, so there is no chance we will debate over coffee the previous night’s episode.
The last musical shot heard round the world was Lennon’s own Beatles, and George Harrison followed him into the ground in 2001. In the movies, fuggedaboudit, nobody goes. Since “Star Wars,” event cinema has all been downhill.
Is that curmudgeonly enough? Where’s my Christmas spirit? Sometimes I feel as if we’re living in Dickens’ London, with coal-fired smoke filling the air. We signal each other through a fog of electronic static and computer buffering, our noses glued to YouTube on our iPhones and our fingers firing bullets in some violent video game while all around us children are born, school kids die, mass shootings happen daily off-Broadway in some Philadelphia that never really reaches the main stage in the Big Apple of our psychic bubbles. The market stutters but doesn’t crash. We live to fight another day. When you least expect it, you’re elected. Women will save us, or at least add diversity to the Hill. Can’t be worse, might get better.
The lack of a common curriculum of cultural touchstones is a plague of the age in which we live. There is no one radio broadcast to which we all turn our ears. The only media genius of these parlous times is in the White House, where he seizes the bully pulpit in a way not seen since FDR’s fireside chats in WWII. Commanding the Twittersphere, it is a bravura performance, Falstaff astride the stage without intermission. At least it gives us something to talk about. Nobody and nothing else comes close. Without it, where would Fox News and MSNBC be?
Searching in vain for common ground in this season of mixed blessings, I stare through the words I write to meet your eyes as you read. War is not over, people suffer, but the human spirit endures. We summon language to sing our struggle. It is said that Dickens “invented” Christmas, and in his evocation of Tiny Tim he tied a bow around his indefatigable resilience: “God bless us, every one!”
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.