(Pictured: a home alight for Christmas in 1972. One year later, the lights would be dimmed, and so would the American future.)
Last December, I wrote about how the holiday season of 1973 was a difficult one in America. On Monday, December 24, 1973, the evidence is right there on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal: “Persian Gulf Oil Prices Doubled.” OPEC’s gift to the West was to announce on Sunday that effective January 1, the new price per barrel would be $11.65, up from the current price of $5.11, which had represented a huge increase when it was announced in October, just after the Yom Kippur War. Related, at the bottom of the page, is the headline “Kissinger to Push Talks,” over a story about the latest Middle East peace efforts. Inside the paper is an article about preparations for the return of daylight time in January as an energy-saving measure.
All of that, however, represented only the most recent gut-punches in a year that was full of them. Although President Nixon had proclaimed “peace with honor” in Vietnam in January and the POWs had come home to great fanfare shortly after, we’d clearly lost the war, try as we might to deny it, or to cloak it in euphemisms about failing to accomplish our objectives. Watergate snowballed from political scandal in the winter to Constitutional crisis by fall. The dollar was officially devalued 10 percent, and the Great Inflation was increasing the price of everything and had doubled the price of meat.
But there is less ominous news in the paper, too. The Skylab astronauts are spending Christmas in orbit. (The distemper of 1973 even reaches into space: shortly after Christmas, the astronauts will go on strike, shutting down their communications and taking an unscheduled day off to protest the 16-hour workdays NASA demanded of them.) An article on an inside page is headlined “Big Foot Might Exist.” Pairings are set for the NFC and AFC Championship games on December 30th after Minnesota, Dallas, Oakland, and Miami won playoff games over the pre-Christmas weekend. A winter storm is moving through the central part of the country, and what the weather service calls a “travelers’ advisory” has been posted for southern Wisconsin, with a threat of freezing rain and snow.
If you go to the movies in Madison tonight or tomorrow, you can see Papillon, American Graffiti, The Sting, The Way We Were, Magnum Force—or Sex Clinic ’74, which seems to be a German film dubbed into English, although the dialogue is probably beside the point. If you watch TV tonight, you can see Gunsmoke and Medical Center or various Christmas specials—and Christmas music and/or church services on all three networks after the late news.
We do not have a Madison radio survey to go by, but we can guess what Madison’s radio stations were playing, based on the WLS survey from Chicago dated December 22, where Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” ascends to #1, knocking out Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me.” Two of the hottest records on the survey have leaped into the top 10: “One Tin Soldier” by Coven to #7 from #19, and “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce to #9 from #20. (Croce’s album I Got a Name jumps from #6 to #1, dethroning The Singles: 1969-1973 by the Carpenters.) Other big upward movers on the singles chart are “The Most Beautiful Girl” by Charlie Rich, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, and “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra.
On an inside page of the State Journal from 41 years ago today, an Associated Press story is headlined, “This Year’s Christmas Is Only Outwardly Dim.” and it quotes a couple of religious leaders on the crisis facing America: “We seem to be surrounded by a creeping ugliness in our affairs,” says one. “The hard truth is that a sense of desolation has come upon many.” But as religious leaders do, they remain optimistic: “The hope and eternal promise of Christmas are ours today as in all the years past. The fulfilling of them is up to ourselves.”
Honesty compels me to report that sounds like the lines Greg Lake and Peter Sinfield will write in a couple of years: “Hallelujah Noel be it heaven or hell / The Christmas we get we deserve.”
May you get the one you deserve this year, with those you’d most like to get it from.