I already have a touch of Reviews-of-the-Christmas-Album Fatigue, but I don’t have Christmas-Album-Itself Fatigue. And so we are off to the surface of Neptune, to find my Bob Dylan penpal-of-the-future and see what she thinks. The lovely blue roundness you see above disguises a bleak lifeless landscape dotted with sharp rocks and yielding to a horizon of Mordor-ish volcanoes spewing great banners of flames into a perpetually dark but feverish sky. This poorly imagined landscape should be familiar to my Dear Readers of a certain age who enjoyed film strips about the History Of The Planet Earth in 3rd grade. On this sorry and frightening setting we find a scrap of Life, imperiled but undaunted: a little space module, next to it a makeshift arrangement of fabric and sticks propped against a boulder. A figure appears from behind the module, in a space suit and staggering under a heavy load of something it’s carrying over to the fabric and sticks. This is our penpal, the lone survivor of a hopeful experiment. She’s only known a space ship and now Neptune, all companions have perished after providing her with the skills and information required to survive here, alone.
And one other voice as company. Whatever was packed in the trunk of that space module, all that made it was Christmas In The Heart, Bob Dylan’s 47th commercial release, which was available in stores on the mother planet in October, 2009, and which features cover versions of a variety of songs relating to something called Christmas. This is the only company our little penpal has in her routines of whatever she does to pass the time and then pass it again and again. All she really knows is this patch of Neptune and 15 songs sung in the same voice.
Precious fictions aside, what does Christmas in the Heart mean? There is this baby whose birth is repeated in several of the songs the melodies of which are especially solemn and portentous. The baby is a king of a great nation, although it is certainly not born in a palace. The baby seems to demand attention and gifts from everyone, from impoverished child musicians on up to the angels. However, the parents are not much in the picture here, and the boundaries of the kingdom it’s inherited aren’t clear either. This baby, and its mysterious heritage, vast prestige, and appetite for attention are Christmas.
Does the baby grow up into this Santa Claus person? He’s described as wearing an outfit similar to the illustration here, a red coat, a cap, also adorned with a white beard: if not aristocratic, then a sage. And he’s always greeted with optimism and welcome, just as the baby is similarly greeted. But these songs are buoyant rather than august, and Santa Claus brings rather than demands gifts, so perhaps the great baby has grown into a mirthful and generous king who created Christmas to share largesse and good fortune with his subjects, who again can’t be narrowed down to a particular area. In one peppy Santa Claus number, the singer lists past presidents of the United States, other world leaders who likely enjoy, or in the case of those who have passed on, have enjoyed, the happy example set by this Santa Claus (who would appear to outlive the mortals he serves). Christmas is a kind of regulated and dependable munificence and lightheartedness. Who wouldn’t welcome this state of affairs?
However, we know that suffering is the lot of all conscious life, and the human mind alone among all forms of sentience will create suffering even when circumstances don’t justify anguish. And so among the songs of awe, cheer, and benevolence, there are tales of people unable or unwilling to participate in the positive mood and activities associated with the event or condition of Christmas. Some are separated from the embrace of family, or they are entirely alone. The song, Christmas Blues, with its infectious unhappiness, is strong evidence that self-inflicted despondency is universal to the human psyche. Christmas is truly an occasion that exceeds boundaries or categories.
The one real enigma among this suggestive and fascinating material is Christmas Island. This is just a Jimmy Buffet song describing a vacation in a tropical locale.
Here is a photo of the Christmas Tree Nebula. Happy Holidays my lonely little Neptunian. And your speculations about the singer of these songs are correct: he is older than stone and as warm as the stars.