If you know me, you might know I have a fervent love for the song "Last Christmas" by Wham! (and its lush music video- a beautiful depiction of 80s après-ski chic). Released on the 3rd of December, 1984, the song became an instant classic in the holiday pop lexicon––a yearning power ballad with a twinge of hope. Written and produced by lead vocalist George Michael (who tragically passed away on Christmas Day, 2016), it transcends mere holiday soundtrack fare. It is a bonafide testament to taking the steps of moving on after a brutal heartbreak.
Ever since the beginning of the streaming era, I have established a little ritual. Right after Thanksgiving, I go on a brisk autumnal walk, and listen to the song twice, or three times, anxiously anticipating the smell of freshly cut Christmas trees and frosty eves. Like a shot of wintertime bittersweetness, "Last Christmas" is not just an exercise in waxing melancholic memories–– it’s an assuring wish for better times, a better relationship, and a better go at life in general.
As one gets older, the holidays become less about gift anticipation and more about...anticipation. For everything. What’s the next year going to hold? What could I do to improve my life? Is there a light at the end of this never ending chasm that this year has provided us?
The cold weather also makes you think about closeness- proximity with other bodies, leading to proximity with intimacy, leading to.....
Fuck, I’m still thinking about my ex? Awwww, I miss them- no, FUCK them! Out with the shitty old, in with the shiny new!
So you down another holiday cocktail and hope for the best.
Yes, you’ve done some good things this year. The 2019 you would be stunned at the highlights and low points that 2020 presented.
But then you think about the void. And whatever occupies that void can eat away at your heart like an beaver chipping away at a Douglas fir (are you enjoying this swath of alpine Christmas imagery?).
Back to the song. Let's begin with the chorus.
Last Christmas...I gave you my heart
But the very next day, you gave it away...
Lyrically, of course, this is about a failed relationship- our protagonist was either cheated on, or dumped, the day after Christmas, only to be left alone by the time the New Year’s bells chimed midnight. Horrible. Possibly the worst time to be in emotional turmoil.
This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special.
A years passes– and our protagonist is setting a promise that they will pick the right person to trust with their love and affection. Will they do it?
Tell me baby, do you recognize me? Well it’s been a year, it doesn’t surprise me.
And this is where the song truly transcends its seeming categorization of a little Christmas melancholia ditty is in its verses- highlights indicated below:
“Happy Christmas" I wrapped it up and sent it
With a note saying, "I love you", I meant it
Now I know what a fool I've been
But if you kissed me now, I know you'd fool me again
There is a temptation of falling back with this person- and what a human moment to capture in a lyric. We hear the scorn, the dismissal, and then, beneath all that “I’m so over it” bravado, flickers the small flame of yearning.
A crowded room, friends with tired eyes
I’m hiding from you, and your soul of ice
My god I thought you were someone to rely on-
Me, I guess I was a shoulder to cry on
And now, narrative wise, the listener is getting a visual cue: It’s a REUNION. The ex-lovers are seeing each other after the disastrous breakup and our protagonist is avoiding the awkward interaction and pleasantries. The narrative that the song carves is HIGH drama. You can almost see adjacent characters looking to see how these two will say hello. The music video does a brilliant job of sticking to the narrative, which often can be boring , but for this song, almost operatic in its story, you need those moments represented visually.
A face of a lover with a fire in his heart
A man under cover but you tore me apart
Now I found a real love you’ll never fool me again.
And there it is- we went through temptation, tension, and still have come out of it with resolute optimism that this Christmas/year, we HAVE done better and will get by. Almost echoing The Who’s "We Won’t Get Fooled Again", George Michael hits the last chorus' "You gave me awayyyyyy" line with a beautiful, velvety cathartic verve that, of course, still hints at a present sadness.
The pain of a past love never leaves-as Pablo Neruda so beautifully said in his poem “Tonight I Can Write (The Saddest Lines)”:
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
Yes, indeed. And the holidays are truly a fertile time to revive those never concluded, frayed endings.
I like to think about the double meaning of our song in question's title: It's of course, about "Last Christmas" (last year) but it also refers that this will be the last Christmas our protagonist will be stuck in their nostalgia yearning replay loop. The song becomes a promise to break the cycle, so to speak.
So I urge you to press play on or watch “Last Christmas” this holiday, to serve as a subversive poppy tonic to wake you out of your hazy nostalgia slumber or whatever is worrying you, and to look ahead- keep walking, keep dreaming and keep searching for your happiness- because it will come.
Or at least for me, I have to believe it will.
Happy Christmas everyone- and I hope 2021 brings you something special.