(Pictured: Earthrise, taken from Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968.)
I used to write for a political blog called Best of the Blogs, which still exists in cyberspace, although it’s not what it once was, and most of my posts have vanished. On December 24, 2008, I wrote this (slightly edited):
Forty years ago today, Apollo 8 entered orbit around the moon. While on the dark side—which no human being had ever seen before that night—astronaut William Anders took one of the most famous photos in history, of the earth rising over the moon’s surface. Later that evening, the astronauts did a TV and radio broadcast from orbit. Pointing a camera out the window at the earth, they sent back a tiny, grainy picture, and described what they could see from orbit. Then Anders and his crewmates, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, took turns reading the creation story from the book of Genesis. Borman, the mission commander, ended the broadcast by saying, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”
I was eight years old that night, and I was watching, sometime after supper and before we went off to church, and I’ve never forgotten how it felt to watch: We are humans in an awesomely big world, but look what we can do. (I was still a believer then, so the religious power of that broadcast is lost to me now, although the music of the King James Version of the Bible can be enjoyed by anyone.) Coming at the end of 1968, the most turbulent American year since the Civil War, Apollo 8 gave Americans a sense of hope that had been lacking all year, and a sense of accomplishment, too.
The hit songs from Christmas week of 1968 include some just as monumental as Apollo was, but they also reflect the fragile uncertainty that 1968 had wrought. Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” spoke to 60s idealism, but seemed to recognize that it was slipping away—or had been taken away by assassination. “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins, even as it glided on its glorious musical wings, was by someone whose honest search for meaning had led her to throw up her hands and say “I don’t know.” The week’s #1 song, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” was drenched in paranoia, the lament of somebody who knows it’s all over and is merely waiting to tumble into the grave. Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” both suggested that the smart thing to do was to escape all of it, inside your own head.
OK, that paragraph I just wrote? It could be complete BS.
That’s because, taken another way, one might find an entirely different meaning in the top songs at Christmas 1968. Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” was evidence of long-sought goals finally being achieved (like electing Nixon), while the Supremes and Temptations’ “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” expressed determination to achieve ever-greater goals (like winning in Vietnam). “Wichita Lineman” was another way of expressing the dogged American willingness to persist no matter what setbacks may befall us (like in Vietnam). Bobby Vinton’s “I Love How You Love Me” (one of the greatest oddballs of 1968, IMHO) speaks to deep personal contentment at the end of such a pivotal year.
See what I mean?
The Billboard Christmas charts that week were topped by the new-for-68 album That Christmas Feeling by Glen Campbell: his soporific single “Christmas Is for Children” was #7 among Christmas singles. Leading that chart was Herb Alpert’s new-for-68 version of “The Christmas Song,” followed by two returning warhorses, the original “Little Drummer Boy” and Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song.” Alongside them is a bunch of really good R&B: “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” by James Brown, Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” Lowell Fulson’s “Lonesome Christmas,” and Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Otis Redding’s “White Christmas” sat at #12. (Also on the chart: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” which had been an R&B chart hit, believe it or not, in 1943 and 1944.)
Those songs were clearly evidence that a jolly man in a red suit was very close to visiting the children of the world, perhaps in days or merely hours, to shower them with holiday swag. No doubt about it.