Before this year, I had never attempted to write a Christmas song. Although my band, Sleeping At Last has a tradition of recording a cover version of a popular Christmas song every year for the last seven years, the thought of writing an original Christmas song just never piqued much interest. The world is already brimming over with more than enough Christmas music, after all! This year however, my band and I began a new project, called “Yearbook,” in which I am writing new music for every month of the year. Needless to say, if there was ever a year for me to try to write an original Christmas song, this is certainly the year.
Once I decided to try my hand at writing one, I tried very hard to think through what I wanted it to be about. There are already plenty of songs about The First Noel, or Frosty, the Snowman, White Christmases… or even about Dominick, the Italian Christmas Donkey. And, although there is still so much yet to be written about ‘Dominick,’ the route I ultimately decided to take was a bit different than any of those directions. The first word that came to mind was ‘family,’ and that’s the theme I went for.
“Family” is a very dynamic and flexible word. To some, it represents total warmth, love, support… home. For others, it represents brokenness, deeply-rooted hurt, disappointment and insecurity. The song I chose to write is about the latter definition of “family.” It is a very sad and unfortunate fact that the holidays represent a time of stress and anxiety to an unmeasurable amount of people in the world. For them, the holidays have a way of undoing all of the healing that took place (and was needed) since the previous year’s set of holidays. One step forward, two steps back. This time of year pulls a drawstring on each of us and our families. In ideal circumstances, nothing could be better than to spend time this together with loved ones, but for so many folks, it does quite the opposite: it shines a bright, white spotlight on each and every bruise and broken relationship that exists within a family. For others, perhaps it illuminates the absence of family.
I was fortunate enough to have been raised in a home that was far opposite of those challenges. Christmastime was the time of year that I most looked forward to, for countless reasons (some less noble than others, of course… i.e. getting lots of really cool toys!) For me, “Family” represented safety in my childhood – I was safe to figure out who I am and who I wanted to be, from day one. It represented unconditional love and support.
It wasn’t until I grew up a bit that I was able to notice some of the cracks in the surface of many of my closest family members’ hearts. Family members to whom Christmas was a blaring reminder of the aches and bruises of a family quietly crumbling to pieces. Ever since I grew old enough to see and eventually understand this, it seemed as though each passing year, the distance between those feelings being someone else’s and my own got smaller and smaller. I am by no means, alone – though they may be few, I still have incredible and full-heartedly supportive family members in my life. And I truly adore the spirit of Christmastime, but the cracks in my life and in those around me, are certainly present. Christmas, in spite of all of the hope and restoration it is meant to represent, certainly puts an undesired emphasis on those hurts around me in those I love most, causing the arrival of this time of year to be met with quite a bit of bracing.
“Snow,” the song that I chose to write this Christmas, is very much about these feelings. I’m sure that from everything I just wrote above, I am giving the impression that “Snow” may very well be the most depressing Christmas song ever written… it’s actually not! It’s about hope. It’s about processing those hurts and fears and meeting them head-on each year, with a sense of appreciation for those left standing around us, who believe in us and love us enough to be there throughout the most challenging moments of our lives. It’s about creating new traditions and families out of the ashes of the difficult times we have each had to face.
As a result of being so near to hurt over the years, especially during the holidays, I have given a lot of thought about God’s feelings about our happiness. In modern, Western Christianity, a lot of nice words get thrown around about God being “love,” (it’s a rather pleasant part of the Bible) and that love is critical to the Christian faith. So it’s not really absurd to assume that God wants us to be happy, or that He values our happiness. I’d guess that most Christians, if asked, would say that yes, God ultimately wants them to be happy. But I’m not so convinced that most people believe this wholeheartedly. Maybe it’s because things sound better to say, than they feel to believe, but somehow there’s an impression that God wants us all to just pull ourselves together and try to live decent lives, even if we’re left shortchanged on a daily basis. There’s an unspoken belief that yeah, maybe He is glad when we’re glad, but mostly He just wants us to get on with it and just not be terrible people. I believe this idea completely misses the mark. It shortchanges ourselves, our families and mostly importantly, it shortchanges God. I believe that God not only wants us to live happy, joyful lives as a whole, but that our daily happiness is more important to Him than we could ever fully wrap our heads around. The small but heavy hurts that we feel in our everyday life are not only noticed by God, but He grieves over them. The small, seemingly insignificant joys we feel on occasion are celebrated, and carry so much weight in God’s own joy.
We were not designed to settle… not even at the holidays.
This Christmas, it has become my personal goal (and early New Year’s resolution,) to not allow the definition of “Family” to be the sad, dysfunctional word it so often is, but to completely shift focus and redefine it in my own life. To not brace for the holidays, but to let myself to completely look forward to the traditions that I am privileged to share with those closest to me. And most of all, to deeply value the love that IS puddled around me, by those who are my constants. Because I absolutely believe that our daily happiness in this life, is not only important to God, but it is critical to living a decent life at all.
Whether it’s surrounded by dozens of unconditionally loving family members, or just with a friend or two that know you deeply, with whom you can redefine your world - I hope that your Christmas is absolutely beautiful!
Ryan O’Neal is the principle songwriter/frontman of the Chicago-based band, Sleeping At Last. With over a decade of making music, SAL has extensively toured the US, released several full-length albums, and has been featured on several TV shows (including: Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, etc.) Currently, SAL is at work on a project called “YEARBOOK,” in which the band will write, record and release 3 new songs every month for one year. Ryan lives with his wife Cayt and their dog, ‘Wilco’ in Wheaton, Illinois.