I went to visit my 90-year-old mother and found her in the multipurpose room of her assisted living facility watching an old Andy Williams Christmas special. Maybe you remember those? The stage is sparkling with fake snow and everyone is wearing scarves and bright holiday sweaters, and Andy is crooning about the kind of Christmas not a one of us has ever had. After songs about chestnuts, sleigh bells, and jolly old Saint Nick, along comes a frisky quartet of tap-dancing reindeer and I’m not sure whether to laugh or groan, but when I look around the room, everyone seems transfixed. This stuff is like a drug.
I turn my attention back to the screen and focus on Andy. He looks rather dapper, in a mummified way, as he engages in a bit of banter with a Nashville-style singer dressed as a snow queen in a cloak and white stretch pants. After Andy and the Snow Queen do a number, the Osmond Brothers join the fun, and then a full-on choir as the spectacle tilts back and forth between secular whimsy and religious inspiration.
Eventually an assemblage of children joins Andy on stage by the Christmas tree to add their voices to the joyful noise. They are groomed to perfection in their holiday attire; you can almost smell the shampoo. Now and then the spotlights sweep across the audience, which looks eerily like the Republican National Convention of August ’08, and I’m trying to guess when this thing was made. If memory serves, the variety show Christmas special seems to have achieved the height of its popularity in the ’60s and ’70s, but this one could be as recent as the early 1980s, judging by the bigness of the hair and the post-disco, early Reagan-era bling. A possible clue: The four Osmonds report having sired a combined total of 45 sons and daughters at this point. Maybe we can roughly date it from there.
It’s funny to be sitting next to my mother watching this. I wonder if it brings her back to a certain living room in another time and place. “Escapist, manipulative corn,” my father might have said, but if it worked on us at all, what it stirred up was not sentiment but dissatisfaction and envy, for we saw nothing of ourselves in these concoctions. Did everyone but us experience this kind of heartwarming gaiety at Christmas? In time, we would come to understand that the vague discontent was deliberately provoked. We would see that our culture was designed to create a chronic sense of emptiness that could never be quenched, that it transformed everything into wanting.
But in that long ago Long Island living room, we were simply innocents watching. The little black-and-white television screen was a flickering window to something false and silly, but it gathered us together sometimes as though before a hearth. My mother remembers those as happy days, and I will never take that illusion away from her. I wonder if she ever feels the ache in the gap between what she wanted and what was, between what was and what is. She simply seems glad I am here to enjoy the show with her.
Outside of the room the talk is of shopper stampedes and shootings in stores, deflation and recession, terrorist attacks real and anticipated, disturbing uncertainties. Yesterday I ventured into a mall on Santa Ana’s version of Main Street, bleaker than usual despite the seasonal soundtrack. At one point I heard John Lennon’s voice singing his song “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” and it made me so sad I stopped dead in my tracks.
I remember singing Christmas carols. I remember believing in the meaning, pure and uncorrupted. Now, appalled but oddly tranquilized, I sit in the multipurpose room with my small white-haired mother and a sundry assortment of other souls, all of us nostalgic for what we never had, together in our yearning.