Why We Should All Be Listening to “River” Right Now

India McCarty

In the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees // they’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace,” which means it’s that time of year where I am constantly playing “River.” 


The song has been covered hundreds of times, by everyone from James Taylor (who some speculate is the person Mitchell wrote the song about) to the cast of Glee


“River” is the greatest “Christmas/not Christmas” song in that category (although “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys is a close second). “Christmas/not Christmas” songs are just that: songs that aren’t really about Christmas, but have somehow become integral to a holiday playlist. “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music is a good example of this phenomenon. 


“River” does have a certain yuletide air to it. The “Jingle Bells” melody is worked into the intro piano part, and Mitchell does mention Christmas. However, “River” is a song about lost love and loneliness. It’s about feeling regret about how you might have ended things, especially now that it’s Christmas and you’re feeling alone. It’s also about culture shock: “But it don’t snow here // it stays pretty green,” Mitchell sings sadly, surely thinking about white Christmases in her native Canada. 


In addition to being part of the “Christmas/not Christmas” set, “River” is also a sad Christmas song. Some people don’t believe that holiday songs should be anything but cheerful, but I love a good emo Christmas song. Holidays aren’t always fun for everyone, so it’s nice to hear songs that let us know we’re not alone in feeling that way. 


Christmas is a time when we hang out with our loved ones. 2020 has made that difficult and sometimes impossible for many. After the year from hell, I’m sure many of us agree with Joni: “Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Here’s hoping next Christmas looks a little brighter.


Check out “River” here!