Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis,” or How to Sing a True Christmas Song

Dr. Daniel Anderson

I was shopping with my daughter and the irritating, happy version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” began playing through the store speakers. I reacted with an apocalyptic eye roll and my daughter asked why. I had to explain how the original version of the song, written for the Judy Garland film Meet Me in St. Louis, holds a perfect balance between mourning and hope. The revised version of the song, pushed into gooey sentimentality by Frank Sinatra, is an example of the worst kind of holiday commercialism. It is the musical equivalent of a Hallmark movie and, sadly, it is also the most frequently recorded version of the song. By glossing over the tragedy into which the song is sung, the cheery revision lacks any of the emotional power of Garland’s performance of the song in the film.

Furthermore, the film version of the song is far more grounded in the theology of Christmas.

When Judy Garland sings the song for the film, she attempts to comfort her younger sister, Tootie, played by Margaret O’Brien. Garland sings from a mournful place of darkness, but nonetheless hopefully looks toward a brighter future. Separated from their friends in St. Louis by their father’s decision to move to New York for work, she proclaims “One day soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.” Sinatra’s bastardization sentimentalizes the line into “From now on we all will be together, if the fates allow.” And then the Sappiness Dial gets turned to 11 with the following line “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” In Sinatra’s Holiday dreamland, perfect bliss has been achieved and he basks in a place where hope is no longer needed. This is entirely un-Christmas-like. Garland’s version refuses this hopelessly beautiful sentiment with its original line, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” The Garland version understands that Christmas is only necessary in a world in which “muddling through” is the best we can hope for.

What makes the scene all the more devastating is the close-up on Tootie, who openly wears her devastation on her face. No doubt the fact that the film was released in the midst of US involvement in World War II factors in its unsentimental gravity. The song mourns the present but maintains hope for the future. The world of Meet Me in St. Louis is flawed, yet full of possibility and a beauty that rests on hope, not HGTV holiday decorating advice. In this way, the song’s original version has a definite “next year in Jerusalem” quality that makes the song crackle with authentic beauty in a way that Sinatra’s revision abandons for cheap artifice.

Once I’d finished ranting to my daughter, I began thinking of other Christmas songs that reject kitschy sentimentality and instead bravely look into darkness for glimmers of hope. This is, after all what Christmas is all about, is it not? At its heart, the Christmas story is about God entering into his creation in the form of the most fragile of beings, a baby born to an insignificant, poor, migrant family oppressed by a global imperial power, and offering a glimmer of hope for the future. A hope that will not be realized in his earthly lifetime, but at some unknowably distant point. The beauty of the story is its perpetual hope for something yet to be realized. The brutal darkness into which the Christ Child enters is inseparable from the beauty of the Christmas story.

Has any Christmas song captured that aspect of the story as well as Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis”?

The song, a piano-blues number off the album Blue Valentine, is an epistle, a letter from said Hooker in Minneapolis to an old friend named Charlie. The dark, gritty world she inhabits takes immediate, full form in the song’s opening line: “Charlie I’m pregnant. And livin’ on 9th Street. Right above a dirty bookstore, off Euclid Avenue.” Frank Sinatra would not approve. Yet as in the Christmas story itself, the hopelessness of the world is necessary for the arrival of hope. And the Hooker is doing her best to strive toward something better. “Stopped takin’ dope. Quit drinkin’ wiskey. My old man plays the trombone and works out at the track.” Though her life is still clearly rough, she is, like Judy Garland, trying to “muddle through somehow.” And this is a far more beautiful thing than hanging a shining star upon the highest bough.

One notable thing about Waits’ song is the conspicuous absence of Christmas itself. Except for the title of the song, there are no explicit references to the season. Is this exercise the musical equivalent of the seasonal “is Die Hard a Christmas movie” debate then? Perhaps, but Waits himself seems to want us to make the connection. In some televised live performances, the singer includes a boozy cover of “Silent Night” as both prelude and coda to “Christmas Card.”

Certainly Waits uses the juxtaposition for comedic effect. The pairing of the Minneapolis Hooker and the Virgin of “Silent Night” creates a humorous cognitive dissonance. But the performance also draws attention to one blazingly obvious, though somehow still subtle, Christmas theme in “Christmas Card.” It has nothing to do with tinsel or presents or elves on shelves, however. When the expectant Hooker proclaims that her Old Man “says that he loves me, even though it’s not his baby. Says that he’ll raise him up like he would his own son,” the awkward position in which Joseph finds himself in the Nativity story immediately springs to mind. Waits absolutely intends this to be ironically funny, but we should also take it seriously.

The Hooker and those who orbit her life are trapped in a darkness that, like the margins inhabited by Mary and Joseph, draws the attention of the Divine at Christmastime. Joseph’s embrace of Mary and her Son was brave exactly because of their socially precarious position. Imagining the holy family as desperate people at the filthy edges of society gets at the heart of what the sacred version of Christmas means, and Waits’ song helps us do that. It is the future redemption of a fallen world, not the secular celebration of Sinatra’s pleasure-dome that drives the season. Finding grace in the midst of misery is the supreme image of Christmas.

The sentimental Christmas-peddlers do something quite different. They imagine Christmas as the eradication of misery, and this is their theological failing. Hallmark seeks to create a world in which the Fall of Genesis never happened, and millions of Evangelical Christians flock to this type of art. “Painter of Light” Thomas Kinkade’s work is still wildly popular among Evangelicals, and Kinkade himself proclaimed “I like to portray a world without the fall.” That Kinkade’s life ended in circumstances not unlike our Minneapolis Hooker is devastatingly ironic.

“Christmas Card” may also be seen by some as too ironic to truly capture the Christmas spirit. After all, the song reveals itself to be a lie. At the end of her letter, the Hooker finally admits to Charlie that her tale of redemption is false: “Charlie, for God’s sake, if you wanna know the truth of it. I don’t have a husband. He don’t play the trombone.” With that said, she gets to her real purpose: “I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer, Charlie.” The demons that have dogged her life maintain their grip and the savior has not arrived.

But I argue that this is the moment where the song in fact becomes a true Christmas anthem. Just as Judy Garland found the meaning of Christmas by looking into, then beyond, the brutal present with hope, and just as Mary and Joseph brought a impossibly vulnerable baby into the most hazardous and hostile environment with eyes fixed on some faraway tomorrow, Waits’ Hooker still looks beyond the ruined present. The song ends with as much hope for the future as can be expected in her circumstances: “Hey. I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.” The story of Christmas is that we are all imprisoned but our parole is almost within our grasp. From this perspective, Waits drunkenly drifting away into a lullaby of “Silent Night” makes all the theological sense in the world.

Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.

 

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