As I recall it, the closest my grandson’s winter concert got to noting the meaning of Christmas was singing the song “Count Your Blessings.” The school managed to accurately describe Hannukah and Kwanzaa, but missed the incarnation of Jesus — unless “Jingle Bells” (by the much-loved and enthusiastic kindergarten) is enough of a hint for you. (Honestly, I probably could have discerned the presence of Spirit in anything those 5-year-olds sang. I shouted for an encore.)
I was counting my blessings when I left the school, despite the sting of witnessing Jesus being despised. Pointedly ignoring Jesus makes Christian supremacy that much more obvious, it seems to me. Nevertheless, I have not stopped singing “Count Your Blessings” in my head, which is not a bad thing. I even recorded it for my sister so she could enjoy remembering our mother singing it.
The lyrics matter
When you think about most popular American songs very long, they tend to fall apart. But think about them we must, or they might help us fall apart. So here we go.
The chorus of this little song is what got it into the elementary holiday concert of 2022. The kids’ great grandparents heard it first in 1954.
When I’m worried and cannot sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.
Sweet and comforting, isn’t it? The country had experienced some hard years. And those lyrics have some practical value don’t they? They are somewhat psychologically and spiritually sound.
The idea of “counting sheep” to get to sleep was purportedly donated to European culture by shepherds who had to keep a count of their sheep entering the pen. It was boring enough to put you to sleep – or so became the popular thought. A brave sheep will jump a fence under about four feet, and then the followers will jump, one by one, which is also mesmerizing. In the 1800’s, the image worked its way into plays and such, and became a cliché. It is probably better to imagine something like waves on the beach or a soothing symphony orchestra. But counting blessings might do the trick. It is surely better than piling up worries! So many of us sleep so poorly, we could use some tricks.
Counting stuff might not help you sleep
The American song problems arise when we get to the other part of the chorus and the verse.
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
I think about a nursery
And I picture curly heads
And one by one I count them
As they slumber in their beds.
I am not sure the teacher should have resurrected this old chestnut. But that’s undoubtedly because I follow Jesus and don’t like how his holiday has turned into a shopping spree all over the world. When the kids got further in this song, they found out the “blessings” are all about money and stuff. And it kind of looks like children are among the “possessions.” This seems in line with the American sense of well-being: “I think about when I was poor, but now I have stuff; about when I was childless but now I’m not.”
I’m not sure how the poor, unmarried and childless Jesus fits into all of that! Not to mention the third graders! So stick with the first stanza up there! Otherwise, going to sleep kind of depends on having enough stuff, which very few of us are good at having, even when we’re as rich as Carrie Fisher.
[BTW, Carrie Fisher (AKA Princess Leia) is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Fisher had the most-selling rendition of “Count Your Blessings” in 1954 right after Irving Berlin published it].
There is meaning behind the idealization
Irving Berlin, the Russian secular Jew, was married to an Irish Catholic heiress for 63 years. He wrote “Count Your Blessings” for the movie White Christmas (named after the #1 best selling single ever), a redux of Holiday Inn, which both fenced off the idea of a godless winter holiday. White Christmas was nominated for an academy award in 1955.
The parents of Berlin’s wife were opposed to their interfaith marriage and wouldn’t speak to the couple for years until they lost their second child a month after he was born, on Christmas Day. So you can see the lyric came out of his own rags-to-riches and terrible pain. Berlin said the song came from his doctor telling him to stop belly-aching and count his blessings.
The movie stars who sang it to each other in the movie were Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s aunt and Debbie Boone’s mother-in-law). Their stories kind of undermine the sentiment with which Berlin probably wrote the song, because they didn’t or couldn’t perform it authentically. But they could perform the idea of it. Their lives demonstrate just how committed we Americans can be to presenting an image packed with idealized meaning (like “the holidays”), even down to being our own brand, becoming an ideal, public “self.”
Bing Crosby was an amazing showman but was probably an even better entrepreneur and visionary. His unique voice catapulted him to fame from nowhere and he took it from there. He pioneered sound equipment (and was instrumental in stealing advanced devices from Germany after WW2) which made him sound even better. He might be the first person to perfect a personal “brand.” His “Bingness” made him even richer and more famous when it was translated into big movies like White Christmas and Going My Way. In his “on the road” movies with Bob Hope he was the smooth, calm, connective , all-American guy to Hope’s goofier and more accident-prone guy. It sold. His kids said they wished some of that “Bingness” would have come home with him, where he was a distant, driven loner. It was mostly acting.
Rosemary Clooney also recorded the song and it was well received. But her own story belied its gentle confidence even more than Bing’s. She was a traumatized child who escaped to Hollywood. She married Jose Ferrer and birthed five children in five years. She divorced him over his affairs and married him again, then divorced him over his affairs again. She then waited thirty years before marrying again, all the while dependent on tranquilizers and sleeping pills. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, she had a nervous breakdown onstage and entered psychoanalysis for eight years. Always a heavy smoker, she died of lung cancer. She presented herself as a fulfilled mother, and she did love mothering. But the “Rosemaryness” on screen masked the trauma of her childhood and the ongoing instability of her life.
I think the stories of these people are fascinating. So is your story. But theirs has quite a lesson for me. In the U.S. especially, the screen lures us into what is ideal. I don’t mean fake, since it has truth and love in it, but it is never true to what is. The song “Count Your Blessings” ends up with sweetness rather than actually being sweet. It is strange, isn’t it? It is a song about vulnerability sung by people who can’t seem to manage their own vulnerability, at least in real life. So in that sense it becomes an anti-vulnerability song we are supposed to swallow even if we don’t have the blessings. We use it to salve the vulnerability we can’t face when the lights are on.
We may have a little “Aww. That’s sweet” feeling (and then immediately mock it) but we don’t have the real sense of resting in real comfort. Accepting that idealized sweetness as real seems to actually blunt our receptors for truly being blessed. Maybe it is comfort porn. The love we get in real life is not as ideal as what characters are having on screen (or Instagram).
“Count Your Blessings” is only 2:42 minutes long! In that brief time we get a little taste of blessingness performed with Bingness and Rosemaryness, which I kind of like. Like I said, it is a pleasant earworm. But I would hate to live off it! By this time, the postmoderns have effectively deconstructed all that and exposed every dark underbelly available, anyway, so we probably get only a minute’s worth of the sweetness. What is left?
Maybe people will go with a relationship with God through Jesus, or though whatever preliminary means they discern. The real stuff is better. And it’s left when all the idealizations have been exposed as such.