Since the middle of the 19th century, family has been central to our image of Christmas and shows up in everything from Norman Rockwell paintings to Hallmark specials to commercials and songs. The O’Jays sing, “Christmas just ain’t Christmas / without the one you love.”
Singer/songwriter Kelcy Wilburn performs as Kelcy Mae, and being with the one you love is the problem she addressed with “Christmas with You (Merry Me)” — a song she wrote two years ago, recorded this fall and released Tuesday.
Wilburn is gay, and because of that, she and her partner of seven years had yet to spend Christmas together when the song was written.
“Basically, it was just saying ‘I want to spend the holidays with you,’” Wilburn said.
It’s not that they couldn’t, but they each felt unspoken pressure to be with their biological families, and their families live too far apart to try to visit one on one day and the other the next. It didn’t help that each has a good relationship with her family, so the dilemma wasn’t fueled solely by obligation or convention.
“We both have very supportive families,” Wilburn said. “It would be easy if we had a family that disowned one of us for being gay or didn’t support us.”
As a result, they would spend the holidays apart, each visiting their families. Parents accept that at some point, straight couples choose to be together for the holidays, but Wilburn and her partner weren’t sure their parents would.
“It’s not our families’ fault,” she said. “We let that social dynamic infiltrate our own relationship and our own thinking about how we should spend the holidays.”
That said, when she chose to spend last Christmas with her partner’s family out of state, Wilburn got a few half-joking, half-critical wisecracks from one family member. But as a gay woman, spending the holiday with her partner was an important step in normalizing their relationship — one that takes adjustment for all parties. “It’s still something we have to adapt to emotionally,” she said.
When Wilburn announced the project on her Kelcy Mae website in October, she heard from other gay couples relieved to hear that they weren’t alone in dealing with this tension every Christmas season.
“I heard from people who said, ‘Oh my god, I felt that same way. So-and-so and I did the same thing for several years,’” Wilburn said.
There is nothing obviously gay-themed about “Christmas with You (Merry Me).” It’s not even obviously a Christmas song. Wilburn debated adding sleigh bells to the waltz-time track but instead kept the song spare — her acoustic guitar, voice, and a violin. She plaintively sings, “I want to spend Christmas with you / I want to feel the way merry folks do,” but the song is dominated by images of the separation she experiences and the Christmas she’d like to have.
“It’s just a love song, really,” Wilburn said.
When she sings “merry folks,” it sounds a lot like “married folks,” and when Wilburn sings, “Merry me,” it is less a celebration than a request that the person she’s singing to “marry me.” That wasn’t part of Wilburn’s intent when the song started, but “it turned into a queer marriage performance,” she admitted. When the Supreme Court affirmed gay couples’ right to marry, she knew she had to record the song and knew what its video should be like.
In October, Wilburn asked members of the LGBTQ community to submit appropriate photos and videos to incorporate with footage of her performing the song. Twenty to 30 couples answered the call, and while a few sent images from their holidays, more picked up on the “Merry/Marry Me” phrase and sent marriage proposals and wedding photos. Wilburn posted the song on Kelcy Mae’s Parish Road Music YouTube channel Tuesday.
She’ll also host a night of original and traditional Christmas music Dec. 18 at Sidney’s Saloon, where she’ll be joined by Micah McKee, Renshaw Davies, Alexandra Scott, Sarah Quintana and more.
Wilburn recognizes that the issue that sparked the song is one many unmarried couples face, and that change needed to happen in their own consciousness as much as their parents. This will be the second year that they’ll visit one family and Skype the other, and it’s another small step in making their relationship like most relationships.
“Now we can make our families upset by splitting up holidays,” she said, laughing.