It’s easy to feel invisible during Christmas while living on the margins. The reality relentlessly promoted during the holidays does not appear to have any room at the inn for the down and out, for those who are estranged from their families, depressed, or broke, let alone in trouble with the law. Just as the coffee in Glengarry Glen Ross is for closers, Christmas is for winners. And every year, the curious genre of the “Sad Christmas Song” attempts to correct the record by defiantly seeing those who reside at the season’s edge.

The Sad Christmas Song has a long and storied tradition. We’re all familiar with the oeuvre: Songs about Last Christmases, Christmases Blue and White, and several lonely Christmases. Many beloved Christmas carols, like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” also fall within the Sad Christmas Song tradition, as fellow Christ And Pop Culture writer Chris Marchand has pointed out.

One of the more poignant entries in the pantheon of Sad Christmas Songs may be Tom Waits’ classic “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” from his 1978 album Blue Valentine.

Waits’ inimitable barroom baritone, with assistance from a minimal piano arrangement, paints a vivid picture of a lonely soul living at the edge of Christmas.

When I discovered this dark gem over 15 years ago, this saddest of sad songs became part of my Advent worship. Its plain-spoken lyrics transport me every time into the presence of someone not meant to be seen. And in her presence, confronted by all that humanity, I reckon with what the coming of Jesus might mean for someone like her and, by extension, someone like me.

A Woman on the Edge

Sharing album space with songs about runaways, gangbangers, and thieves, “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” is another showcase for Waits’ ongoing preoccupation with the hard-luck life. In this case, Waits relays, without judgment, the contents of a Christmas dispatch from the titular sex worker to an old acquaintance named Charlie. Waits’ inimitable barroom baritone, with assistance from a minimal piano arrangement, paints a vivid picture of a lonely soul living at the edge of Christmas.

Not that she sees herself as a loser, of course. Like most Christmas cards, hers is all about success, at least initially. She’s pregnant and has a good man who promises to care for the child, though it’s not his. She’s off drugs and booze. There was a rough patch where she “almost went crazy,” but she got through it and is back in town for good. “I think I’m happy,” she tells Charlie at one point.

She even allows herself a moment to be philosophical and reflect on what her life would be like if she still had all the money she spent on drugs:

I’d buy me a used car lot
And I wouldn’t sell any of ’em
I’d just drive a different car every day
Dependin’ on how I feel

And then, in a heartbreaking turn, in the last stanza, the narrator comes clean. Everything she just shared is a lie. The truth is that she’s in jail, needs money for a lawyer, and is hoping that Charlie can help. And with her closing words, she sweetens her entreaties by letting Charlie know that (presumably with his help) she could soon be back out in the streets–and available.

I’ll be eligible for parole
Come Valentine’s Day

A God Who Sees

Prostitutes are not the first people who come to mind when we think about Christmas. Unlike virgins, they don’t appear in carols or Christmas Eve sermons. They don’t make for popular tree ornaments or figurines in Nativity scenes. It’s as if Christmas is not meant for them. For all intents and purposes, prostitutes are invisible, but only in the Ralph Ellison meaning of the word: They are invisible simply because we refuse to see them.

The irony here is that the Savior, whose birth we celebrate during the season, did not look past the prostitutes of his time. Once, a prostitute made her way to Jesus while he was eating with a religious leader and proceeded to worship him so ardently that the religious leader became offended. Jesus responded by forcing the leader to acknowledge the prostitute before him: “Do you see this woman?” Jesus pointedly asked the leader before turning to the woman and ministering to her (Luke 7:44-48, ESV).

Even more telling is that God saw to it that a prostitute became an indispensable part of the Christmas story. Before telling us about the birth of Christ, Matthew’s gospel tells us about his family tree. And in a lineage that includes such household names as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and King David, he also mentions a woman named Rahab (Matthew 1:5). Discerning Bible readers will recognize her as the Jericho prostitute who threw in her lot with God’s people by helping Joshua’s men escape the city before the walls fell. In other words, without Rahab the prostitute, there is no Christ, and without Christ, there is no Christmas.

A Silent Night

I don’t know if he still does this, but back in the day, Waits always performed “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” as a medley with “Silent Night,” the classic carol about a coming “dawn of redeeming grace.” To my knowledge, he has never explained why he did this. Perhaps he found the holy/profane juxtaposition intriguing or humorous. Whatever the reason, it’s an inspired pairing.

By seeing her without judgment, Waits renders one particular prostitute in Minneapolis visible again at Christmastime. And in doing so, he restores her humanity, even if only in a fallen state that is ever yearning for freedom—even the modest freedom of driving a different car every day. By exposing her fallen humanity, and our willful blindness to it, Waits’ song confronts us with a world in need of the redeeming grace of “Silent Night”—a world in need of a Savior who can see all those living at the edge of Christmas.

And what’s more in keeping with the holiday spirit than that?