Subscribe to our newsletter

Credit: Mitchell


How Joni Mitchell created the greatest Christmas song of all time

As the nights draw in and the mornings get colder, I have started to see more and more lights pop up in storefronts and front rooms of houses as people start to prepare for the festive season. While I usually try to refrain from the urge to get into the spirit before December, something has urged me to start a little earlier this year. I imagine this is something to do with us all feeling perhaps a little short-changed after last year when many of us didn’t get to enjoy Christmas with our loved ones.

In mid-November, I allowed myself to indulge in a few festive songs on my walk through town. I had a bit of fun revisiting memories of past Christmases listening to the likes of Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ and Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’. However, fairly quickly, these songs were a little jarring and so I thought they might be best put on ice until the Christmas parties kick off in mid-December. I then thought of songs I could listen to that one might not pay at a Christmas party, I then thought of Joni Mitchell.

Mitchell has become a household name in not only the world of folk music but in the larger arena as a global musical legend. Many, rightly or wrongly, describe her as the feminine answer to Bob Dylan due to her poetic songwriting skills and emotive arrangements spanning a career laden with legendary albums from Blue to Both Sides Now. No legend in music makes me feel more festive than Mitchell in her plaintive ballad, ‘River’. 

‘River’ is a cut against the grain as far as traditional Christmas songs go. While we are all well acquainted with paradoxically negative themes in Christmas hits such as ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues or ‘Lonely This Christmas’ by Mud, none quite capture the same powerful sentiment as ‘River’ released on her 1971 masterpiece Blue.

It begins with a melancholic piano arrangement of ‘Jingle Bells’ which continues to be woven into the melody of the song throughout. The opening line sets the imagery with, “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees. They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace”. This evokes a festive image, perhaps of walking through a snowy, late November New York street.

As the narrator, Mitchell is clearly not happy, she wishes she had a river she could skate away on. She proceeds to give hints of the heartache she was feeling at the time of writing the song. Following her split from her two-year relationship with fellow musician Graham Nash, she left North America for Crete (skating away on a river to “quit this crazy scene”). The lyrics expose feelings of regret and self-loathing as she explains: “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad, now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had”.

The song reminds us importantly that Christmas is not filled with festive joy for everyone; the sentiment of the song reassures us that the true meaning of the festive period is perhaps more than the skin-deep feelings of joy and ecstasy. The true meaning of Christmas is love and compassion, which for some, can be absent at this time of year; this can be a lonely feeling. I can’t help but draw a parallel between ‘River’ and the usual tear-jerking John Lewis adverts that make a yearly spectacle on screens across the UK. They remind us that spreading love is what Christmas is about, it’s what brings the truest warmth at this cold time of year.

Have a listen and see what you think, below.