Very few songs have joined the Pop Christmas Canon in the last forty years with only two at present being considered for inclusion, in my estimation: The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.” Both differ from most of the other songs in the oeuvre by the fact that neither can be remotely called a happy song: in Fairytale, a couple wistfully recounts their unraveling relationship—and their careers and lives as well—amidst the glory around them that is Christmas in New York City. In the “Same Old Au Sang Lyne,” the protagonist runs into an old flame in a convenience store on Christmas eve and they polish off a six-pack in his car while reminiscing.
Both have had a tremendous impact on me—soon after getting married I dragged my wife to New York for Christmas Eve, looking in vain for the NYPD Choir but still managing to have a romantic holiday just the same. And well before we married I took a woman on Christmas Eve to the same convenience store where Dan Fogelberg ran into his ex-beau (yet another advantage of being from Peoria) and split a six-pack in the parking lot just as they did.
But I have my own new nomination for enshrinement into the canon: Snow Day by the group Matt Pond PA.
To call a three minute pop song Shakespearian risks mockery but I am laying my cards on the table: Snow Day is a profound meditation on love and age and faith that slowly unspools in the context of the aftermath of a snowstorm.
The song begins with a familiar trope: recounting the sensory pleasures of walking in a storm with a partner when few others are present.
Struck brightly by the winter
When the snow falls in silent I can only hear you breathing
While it’s not exactly original, it is nevertheless satisfying and we can all relate to the silence and calm that a fresh coating of snow instills.
However, a few stanzas later it suddenly becomes clear that the song is really about something more elemental.
So clearly your eyes framed in the light decaying
These aren’t a couple of millennials walking around in Williamsburg, looking for the newest speakeasy—this is a couple with some years and a history together, old enough to feel the effects of advancing age. Putting “decaying” at the end of the line may appear at first glance to be merely a way to set up a rhyme but decaying isn’t automatically an adverb here. It’s an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, done in an understated way. And it completely works.
Not only have they become old but they’ve become old together, and figured out some essential truths about life and love and faith along the way.
So quiet your words stood out when you were saying
That the people we have become
Know that there’s more than the setting sun
This reiterates that the couple has been together for some time, we know now. With this new context the beginning of the song takes on an entirely new meaning.
I will follow a set of deep tracks
Other people all stay hidden cars rest under snow drifts
The author has followed a path created by his partner, one that’s taken him somewhere beyond where others are going, and it hasn’t been easy. Any honest man would admit that this is how relationships work—the woman takes the reins in most families. It’s also an allusion to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, of course.
But they haven’t just started this relationship: it’s coming to its natural end.
We don’t think of all the struggle
In our footsteps, it’s behind us
They’re not in the prime of life: they’re coming around the home stretch. The tough parts—careers, raising a family, burying parents—are behind them, and they are perhaps feeling disconnected from who they were when they began this journey. It leads them to again ponder who they have become and what comes next, and to embrace their faith.
We can want more
Find out in the new morning
But something brings them back to the here and now, and who they were—and still are, they discover excitedly:
The people we have become
Still lay awake hoping to hear airwaves
Say snow day
And in those two words they tie their contemplation of the eternal and the struggle of their long relationship to the here and now with the quotidian satisfaction that we all get upon hearing that the schools are closed. Pulling that trick off with a simple seven letter phrase is beyond brilliant, I submit, and the song celebrates this realization by closing with a chorus of “Snow Day, it’s a snow day.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1985 Michael Stipe once remarked that a friend he admired complimented him for his line in the song”Life and How to Live It” that asks “what do you do between the horns of the day?” Stipe admitted that he was really singing “between the hours” but that he didn’t have the heart to tell the guy, because his friend’s phrase was probably better than his.
In the essay Mistake as Metaphor, Walker Percy (a favorite of Stipes) noted that it’s not uncommon for people to mishear lyrics and completely go somewhere else with where the author intended. Maybe the members of Matt Pond PA are staunch agnostics who would be aghast at anyone taking their music to be an affirmation of the faith.
I once met the writer of another favorite song of mine, “The Man of Misery” (performed by 1980s country-rock band the Long Ryders), which I was convinced was a subtle allegory about Christ and the Passion. He looked at me as if I was drunk (which I was) and then told me there was no there there: It was about a drunken neighbor he and the band once had.
So I’m not going to ask them and ruin a song I can’t stop listening to. And in a few years I suspect the rest of you will be listening to it as well.
And I think most of you will like it.
Ike Brannon is president of Capital Policy Analytics, a Washington consulting firm.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard