We Used to Send Out Christmas Cards

Reflections on Winter Solstice 2019

sun setting over San Francisco Bat
We Used to Send Out Christmas Cards — 2016 studio version

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the winter holidays. My name may be Jewish but my mother was not, and we never celebrated anything other than (secular) Christmas. And I seem to face it with an uneasy mixture of anticipation and dread.

Christmas is hyped in our culture. We’re told it’s the most wonderful time of year, that it’s about love and family and giving, and also about getting stuff. It’s the modern Solstice celebration, to mark the promise that days will start getting longer and the nights shorter again. It’s supposed to be about hope, but many of my Christmas memories center on family tension, disappointment, depression, loneliness. There were many good times too but the darkness seems often to win when I reflect.

In December 2008 I had recently lost my job and I was living in a house I could barely afford. There was a chance that the entire economy could collapse and I was not alone in a nagging fear that we all were in real trouble. My personal anxiety seemed well aligned with the national mood. But the election of Barack Obama was a ray of hope. This was the context in which I wrote and recorded my song We Used to Send Out Christmas Cards. I think I recorded it on Christmas Day, and you can hear soft rain against the windows.

We Used to Send Out Christmas Cards – 2008 demo

Time changes everything. The memory of 2008 seems nearly erased by the crass ugliness that surrounds us today. I’ve watched my country largely abandon what Lincoln called the Better Angels of Our Nature, to be replaced by a vein of mean, violent, racist, sexist, exclusionary emotional wailing. The dark underbelly of America that we’ve never lost is now in the ascendent, and the possibility that it might actually become so prevalent that it leads to a totalitarian end to the American experiment is more than a theoretical possibility.

But I’m in a better place now, emotionally, financially; I have a job I love and my children are moving along with their lives in a way that I could have scarcely imagined in 2008, when it seemed like we were all struggling. I’m caught between my own good fortune and the strange dark corners that my country is stumbling through. I’m faced with the constant reminders of poverty and inequality graphically epitomized by the tens of thousands of people living and dying in squalor on the streets of my city. (Song: Van Nuys).

So… it’s not easy to be hopeful for 2020; and yet, I can see in my life how much can change and how fast. I hold on to Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe and try in my own feeble way to bend it just a bit more towards justice. What looks like an arc from a distance is a jagged line when you’re up close. At the Solstice, at Christmas, at the New Year, I have to step back and believe that we haven’t yet lost our way. At least for a day or two.

So I wish you Merry Christmas,
May your light forever shine,
And I wish you Happy Hanukah,
Burning oil lamps divine,
And I bless the Winter Solstice
That draws us close and near,
As we look out on the dawning of the year.

We Used to Send Out Christmas Cards was written and recorded by Michael Berman. Copyright 2008 — All Rights Reserved.

Van Nuys

Van Nuys (demo) — written and performed by Michael Berman;
includes excerpt from Celluloid Heroes written by Ray Davies; Copyright A. Michael Berman 2019

I was inspired to write this song by the City Beat column by Nita Lelyveld published in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, November 9, which tells the story of Christopher Dennis. It was such a poignant story and I was moved by tragic contrast between the character of Superman, whom Christopher embodied on Hollywood Boulevard, and the challenges of his real life and his sad end. Once I’d sung it a few times, I realized how it connected to one of my all-time favorite songs, Celluloid Heroes, written by Ray Davies, performed by the Kinks; I incorporated a few lines from the chorus and modified part of the chord sequence into the bridge.

I hope you listen to Van Nuys and enjoy it. If you like it, please stop and introduce yourself to someone living on the street, remember that everybody’s a dreamer, and we’re all filled with the capacity to bring smiles to others.

Van Nuys is dedicated with appreciation to Christopher Dennis.

Thanks to Nita for telling real stories about people who are too often forgotten.

If you want to contact me about the song, please send me email at my gmail address amichaelberman, and include “Van Nuys” in the subject line so I’ll be sure to see it.

November 12, 2019