Check your Instagram, Facebook or Twitter timeline. Search among the plethora of Christmas funnies, foods and facts for a post about loneliness. Anything? Or listen carefully while doing your Christmas shopping. Any songs lamenting the holidays? Probably not. Yet the only solo Christmas song ever written for and performed by Michael Jackson addresses the issue of loneliness; and when recording it in the 1970s, little Michael sang his heart out.
It’s a tough one. For many people – especially children – Christmas is a joyful occasion. The lights, the presents, and the story of a little Child born in Bethlehem. What’s there not to be happy about? Yet for others, particularly the elderly, Christmas can also be a time of aching melancholy and dreaded loneliness.
Staring at the four walls of their home most of the year, many elderly would gladly welcome a little company at Christmas. More often, however, they sit at their dinner table alone before turning to the television for company. It’s not just at Christmastime. As the social networks of elderly slowly erode over the years due to death, infirmity and far-away or even indifferent relatives, they are left behind, alone and often forgotten.
Little Christmas Tree
One song that acknowledges the reality of loneliness during the festive season is ‘Little Christmas Tree’ written by George S. Clinton Jr. and Artie Wayne in 1972. “It’s a true story of how my girlfriend left me out in the cold like the last tree in a Christmas tree lot, which is left unsold on Christmas Eve”, Wayne shared on his blog in June 2009, shortly after Jackson had passed away.
I hear the Christmas bells
The happy people singing
The songs of good cheer
that only brings me tears
I sadly close my eyes
and say a little prayer
you’ll be waiting there for me
I look but all I see is
Just a little Christmas tree
Lookin’ sorta sad and lonely just like me
No one seems to care
They just went away and left it standing there
All alone on Christmas Eve
Bluff your way into Motown
The song has a rather curious history. Pushed by his boss at Warner Brothers Music to write a hit, Wayne bluffed his way into Motown Records in the early 1970s. It was the time when young Michael Jackson was steadily climbing the charts with his major Motown solo hit ‘Ben’.
Wayne told Motown producers Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larson that he was writing a brand-new Christmas song for young Michael, even though he hadn’t put a note on paper. “When they ask to hear it, I tell them we were still working on it, when in fact we hadn’t even started! I can’t tell them the title, ’cause there isn’t any!” Wayne remembered with a chuckle.
Yet somehow Motown gave their thumbs up, provided that the song was to be finished after the weekend. Frantically, Wayne and Clinton set out to work. “Saturday morning we meet at my office. It’s the middle of summer, about 90 degrees, but we have to get in a Christmas mood. As I tell George about my break up with Diana last Christmas, then I start to throw ivory snowflakes around the room. Soon, we have the first verse and chorus.”
Singing from the heart
Now all that was left to do was record Jackson’s voice. As young as he was – Jackson recorded the song on the brink his 14th birthday – he had already been singing for nearly a decade. When he sang, he sang with all the soul and melancholy he could find in his young heart which, in many ways, was already old.
Loneliness, for example, was nothing new for the boy who grew up on stage. “Success definitely brings on loneliness. It’s true. People think you’re lucky, that you have everything. They think you can go anywhere and do anything, but that´s not the point. One hungers for the basic stuff”, he wrote in his autobiography Moonwalk (1988).
Friendship and companionship were not the only basics that young Michael yearned for. Something else he deeply longed for were the simple pleasures of holiday festivities. Raised as a strict Jehovah’s witness, young Michael knew no Christmases or any other celebrations for that matter.
“There was no Christmas, there was no birthdays. It was not a normal childhood. No normal pleasures of childhood. Those were exchanged for hard work, struggle, and pain; and eventual material and professional success. But as an awful price, I cannot recreate that part of my life”, he recalled in 1993, when he accepted the Grammy Legend Award.
Doing the opposite
Experiences such as these, together with the violence of his disciplinarian father, were deeply etched in Jackson’s psyche. It’s the main reason why he decided to live an adult life that was the opposite of his childhood. His Neverland ranch had permanent Christmas lights on every single tree in his private theme park. He surrounded himself with children continuously, shared his wealth and time generously with the underprivileged, and never skipped Christmas or birthdays once he had children of his own.
Facts such as these add poignancy to ‘Little Christmas Tree’ and raise it above sheer Motown nostalgia or Christmas sentimentality. It’s also what makes the song a reminder of the uncomfortable truth that many do not enjoy the privilege of company at Christmastime – and for some there may not be any Christmas at all.
So far, ‘Little Christmas Tree’ has remained fairly unknown, unlike the Jackson 5’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’, which is now a staple ingredient of any radio station. Young Michael’s lesser-known Christmas song deserves more airplay nonetheless. If the Christmas season is to be about more than tinsel, ‘Little Christmas Tree’ could well be a little light pointing the way.
© Annemarie Latour
Note: ‘Little Christmas Tree’ was originally published on the compilation album, A Motown Christmas (1973), which was rereleased on CD in 2003. ‘Little Christmas Tree’ was also added to the Jackson 5 Ultimate Christmas Collection (2009). The only country where it was released as a vinyl single was the Netherlands. The Dutch picture sleeve record has since become an extremely rare collector’s item.