As December 25th approaches and as radio stations begin to play Christmas carols, I am reminded of my all-time favorite: “Merry Christmas, Darling” by the Carpenters.
The lyrics for the song were written by Frank Pooler, and the music was written by Richard Carpenter, but the song’s real power comes from the beautiful, majestic, amazing, and fantabulous voice of Richard’s sister, Karen.
Ironically, the two parts of the song were written 20 years apart by 19-year-old musicians. According to Sharon TG on YouTube, Pooler wrote the lyrics in 1946 as a Christmas gift for his faraway girlfriend. He never performed the song for her, though, because they broke up before he had a chance to do so.
The song came back to life 20 years later in 1966, when Pooler worked as the choir director at California State University, a choir that included the Carpenter siblings. Since the Carpenters were also performing on their own at that time, Richard asked Frank if he knew of any new or unusual carols. Naturally, Frank mentioned his song from 1946, and he added that he no longer cared for the tune he had composed. Richard quickly offered to compose new music, and the rest, as they say, is Christmas history.
Though not released as a single until November of 1970, The Wikipedia website notes that the song became an instant hit and the number-one Christmas single according to the Billboard rankings. In subsequent years, the song was released again and again with a similar response and later was part of the 1978 Carpenters’ Christmas album.
As mentioned earlier, Pooler’s lyrics share a Christmas greeting between separated lovers, and since I didn’t have a girlfriend when the song came out during my sophomore year of college, I easily imagined that Karen, who was about my age, was singing that song to me. By then, of course, I already knew her well. She had introduced herself to me earlier that year with songs like “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The easy-listening, pop music she performed with her brother was in stark contrast to most of the music from that rock-and-roll era, but I enjoyed it, and I purchased a few of their recordings during their time together, a time that ended much too soon; Karen died at age 32 on February 4, 1983.
Her death at such a young age shocked everyone, and the cause of her death — heart problems brought on by the accumulated stress of an eating disorder — was an added shock. At that time, few people knew about anorexia nervosa. After Karen’s death, her family made a concentrated effort to educate others about this dangerous, and sometimes deadly, disease. And while many today still associate Karen Carpenter with this disease, her music is her true legacy.
During their short career, the Carpenters won three Grammys and earned ten gold singles, eight gold albums, and five platinum albums. Thirty-five years after her death, one can only wonder about the music Karen and Richard Carpenter might have created had she lived a longer life.
Similarly, whenever a young person dies, the loved ones who are left behind experience an emotional wound that will never be completely healed. Those survivors are left with not only the memories of what was but also with the musings of what might have been.
So, do I really miss Karen Carpenter? Yes, I do. No, I do not think of her often; after all, I only knew her from afar. I was a lonely young man who longed for a relationship like the one she described in her Christmas carol. Every December, however, when I hear her sweet voice again, I am reminded of her and of my own loved ones — Mom, Dad, my sister Peggy, and our daughter Maria. And it is to them that I sing along with Karen Carpenter to this beautiful song.
“The logs on the fire fill me with desire to see you and to say that
‘I wish you Merry Christmas, Happy New Year too.
I’ve just one wish on this Christmas Eve:
I wish I were with you.’”