yatima’s mostly-nondenominational northern hemisphere midwinter festival playlist

2000 miles

“I can hear people singing,” (and since I’m not allowed to listen to this playlist until after Thanksgiving) “it must be” Northern Hemisphere Midwinter Festival “Time.” Chrissie Hynde wrote this after The Pretenders’ first lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose; as you’ll see, I like the sad carols. The ending of this song is sublimely 1980s; the band just repeats the chorus over and over until they end on a resounding chord. Jazz hands!

Chiron Beta Prime

So much for being nondenominational: because I’m a lapsed Anglican nerd, I sometimes wonder whether Jonathan Coulton (suspicious initials, those) named his protagonists the Andersons because it means “Son of Man” and whether he chose Chiron because Chi-Rho was a Greek monogram for Christ. That said, the song works equally well as an anticapitalist anthem, with the robot overlords representing limited liability corporations. Oh, and it’s hilarious.

Fairytale of New York

Mandatory, obvi. I usually start crying around “I could’ve been someone./ Well so could anyone.” Reminds me of when Rajit Singh returned our lost luggage and, years before that, when I met Shane MacGowan in Dublin, his broken teeth like tombstones on the red hills of his gums. I wish Kirsty MacColl were still alive.


This one makes me think of Jamey, who gave it to me, and of my mum, whose story it is. Tracey Thorn’s voice is a silver thread running through my marriage, from “Protection” as the anthem of our first year together to “Hatfield, 1980” for the summer we lived in Cambridge. Mum would have loved the lines: “We face down all the coming years/ And all that they destroy/ And in their face we throw our joy.” That was her basic rationale for all the mah jongg and Bailey’s.


Tracey’s Tinsel and Lights is such a great album that three tracks off it have landed on my playlist. This is a Joni Mitchell cover that earned its place for the lyrics: “I’m so hard to handle/ I’m selfish and I’m sad.” (No, YOU are.) I always think of Emma Thompson’s wonderful line from the mostly-reprehensible Love, Actually: “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”

Sister Winter

A Sufjan Stevens cover, but I heard Tracey’s version first so it’s definitive to me. I love the strangeness and sensuality of the lyrics – “I kissed your ankle” – and Sister Winter as darkness and heartbreak, but also as an intimate relation. I love the friends waiting patiently for the suffering heart to recover. Demeter and Persephone are here, and so is Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America with its call for the communalization of trauma.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

Speaking of, that summer in Cambridge I wanted to hear the King’s College choir at last, but I was urged by a smiling Anglican to keep the girls behind the screen where we wouldn’t disturb the other congregants. Ah, the established church, ever eager to tuck its women and children away out of sight. Against that, though, set the pageant I attended at Holy Innocents in San Francisco, where the congregation discovered six-week-old Julia in her sling and urged me to take the role of Mary. I declined – I’m not that reconciled to my church damage – but I still have the tinsel crown Claire wore as a three-year-old angel. This strange old poem was given a mid-20thc setting by Elizabeth Poston. “It keeps my dying faith alive” – we’ll see, I guess.


Another silver thread through my life: My parents playing Steeleye Span when I was still too young to recognize the electric guitars and folk songs as incongruous with one another. Me carolling in York Street with the choir of Christchurch St Lawrence. Alex and I in Dublin discovering that we both loved this song. Maddy Pryor’s incredible voice was probably the prototype for my love for Kirsty Maccoll, Tracey Thorn and Vienna Teng. The ending of this song is ridiculously 1970s; the audio engineer just fades the choir out and you have to pretend that they’re walking away from you still singing.

O Holy Night

This one makes me think of Salome, because sometimes we read each others’ minds. Talk about incongruity, the ukuleles and xylophones making it sound like a school play. Yet everything that makes the Northern Hemisphere Midwinter Festival important to me is here: the long dark, the beloved dead, the newborn baby, the terrifying angels and their incomprehensible message. The star and our journey.

Atheist Christmas Carol

The newest addition, which I heard for the first time live on Boxing Day last year at the Freight & Salvage, with Claire in my arms. I gave this one to Tina after we rode our bikes to the Forest of Wind Chimes at Wilbur Hot Springs and cried for Jen. “It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind/ And knowing we are not alone in fear/ Not alone in the dark.” That’s all I got. Grace coming out of the void, for some reason. It’s so cold now but spring will come again. Not a metaphor: physics.

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