The message of the holiday season repeated over and over is: “Be happy. Love and be loved. Don’t be alone.”
So what of those who are not in love or have lost a loved one? The message is to take refuge in family — in any family, really — and wrap yourself in tradition. Tuck into the warm nook of community and be joyous.
It sounds lovely, if daunting.
For those who can’t stomach the season, one way to muddle through is to surround yourself with music, books and films created by misfits for other misfits. Here’s my list of 11 such pop cultural treats for those who might need help getting into the spirit.
1. The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”
This Christmas anthem is the antidote to that classic date-rape duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” “Fairytale” is the story of a down-on-their-luck couple who sling horrible epithets, blaming each other for their failures. The song acknowledges how complex, flawed and messy love can be. To feel immediate catharsis, blast the track and scream along with this call and response: “I could’ve been someone!” “Well, so could anyone!”
2. “The Shining,” directed by Stanley Kubrick
This 1980 masterpiece, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, might seem like a wrong fit for the holiday season, but consider this: It is about a man and his family staying in an empty hotel in the dark of winter. When the man falls into madness, culminating in a psychopathic rage, it might make your family’s dysfunction seem tame by comparison. And for those not making the trek to see family this year, “The Shining” might be a comfort: It is always better to be alone than to be chased around a snowy maze by a homicidal family member.
3. “A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” Tom Waits
Waits’s 1978 track, “A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” is a prostitute’s letter to a former lover. She tells him she’s pregnant, clean and doing well. Until the very last verse, when she can’t lie anymore. When so much of our lives, online and otherwise, is performative, there may come a moment this season when your carefully crafted façade breaks apart. Waits’s song is all about that moment when it’s obvious pretense isn’t worth the effort.
4. “The Dead,” by James Joyce
One of Joyce’s most accessible and profound short stories, “The Dead” is set in the first week of January, during the Feast of the Epiphany. It is the evening of the Morkan sisters’ annual dance, when the main character, Gabriel, gives his annual toast. He says, “we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age.” Read before an office holiday party, or as your New Year’s hangover lifts. At this time of constant tragedy, Joyce argues for us to have faith in humanity.
5. “Citizen Kane,” directed by Orson Welles
Lauded as one of the greatest films ever made, Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” is also a holiday film. When Kane longs for his Rosebud, he is also longing for the past when he was young and carefree — and the world was all possibility. As we slide into end of the year, Citizen Kane will remind you to reflect on where you came from and where you’re going in the year to come.
6. “Gremlins,” directed by Joe Dante
This dark comedy with an adorable furry beast and a bunch of terrifying monsters is the story of a young man who is given a Christmas present he can’t control — the appropriate allegory for those of us who grope through life, trying hard to do right even as we might leave disaster and disappointment in our wake.
7. “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt
There is nothing like losing yourself in a long novel, especially during the darkest days of winter — and Tartt’s “The Secret History” is the perfect winter tome. Set in a small college town in Vermont, it is the story of six friends, a couple murders and the numerous secrets discovered during the holidays. It is a compulsive read — good company during December’s longest nights.
8. “How I Hate to See Xmas Come Around,” Jimmy Witherspoon
A good blues track can give voice to the human condition, reminding the listener that our individual heartbreak and darkest shame is more universal than unique. So on the day your credit card hits its limit or you need a yuletide timeout, turn to this song about a poor man who tries to beg and pawn his way through the season.
9. “Home Alone,” directed by Chris Columbus
When you can’t sit through “Love, Actually” again, turn on “Home Alone” and revel in this homage to being alone over the holidays. When a boy’s family leaves without him for their Christmas holiday, he learns the simple, perfect joy of getting the house to himself. He gets to control the remote, and choose all his food and music. Not even burglars harsh this kid’s glorious solo-staycation.
10. “Hook,” directed by Steven Spielberg
In this re-imagining of the J.M. Barrie classic “Peter Pan,” Peter (played by Robin Williams) is a boring lawyer who has forgotten all about Neverland, the Lost Boys, Wendy Darling and even Tinker Bell. When Captain Hook kidnaps Peter’s kids, he must reconnect with his Pan-ish nature. This film is a reminder that, however hard life might be, you can still find small, perfect moments — a message to buoy even the grumpiest misfit.
11. “Player’s Ball,” Outkast
Finally, here’s something for the players out there, hustling: Outkast’s 1994 classic “Player’s Ball,” the debut single off their breakout first album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Somehow when Big Boi and Andre 3000 rap about chimneys and Christmas, everything is better. Turn it on, turn it up and mouth all the words.