A ’60s peace sign graces the cover of Melissa Etheridge’s 2008 holiday album, “A New Thought for Christmas.”
While “Peace on Earth” is not a new thought, it did take on new meaning for the Oscar- and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter who beckoned fans to come to her window in 1994. She opened that window even wider by sharing her health journey in the years before recording her Christmas collection, which will be at the heart of her concert Saturday night (12/8) in the Riverside Casino Event Center.
“I had just gone through my breast cancer stuff,” Etheridge, 57, recently said by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “And there’s nothing like that to really bring you to your own spirituality, your own sense of, ‘Wow, what’s the meaning of all this, the meaning of life,’ and love became a very important part of it for me. I really saw that love has a lot to do with happiness, with the world, so my writing right around there — like ‘The Awakening’ (in 2007) and this (Christmas) album — it all had that sense of love, joy, peace and just how important that is to the human race.”
She’ll also roll her hits into the concert.
“We’re still gonna rock and do the fun stuff,” she said, along with about half a dozen holiday songs. But fans probably won’t hear any cuts from her 2016 “Memphis Rock and Soul” album.
“I have way too many songs to pick from,” she said with a laugh. “I only do between 15 and 20 songs a night,” so her shows vary according to themes.
A big challenge was choosing 10 holiday songs to remake, record or write anew.
“They had to be songs that I loved and I wanted to play,” she said. “I told the record company, ‘Look, I will record some covers.’ I will do ‘Blue Christmas’ because c’mon, that’s Elvis, you gotta do that. I wanna do some blues, so I did ‘Merry Christmas Baby,’ then ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ is just the perfect Christmas song.”
The other half features songs she has written, conveying the spirit of the season.
“I enjoy this time,” she said. “I enjoy the winter solstice. The nights get longer — that’s why we have all this — the three days in December that the sun stands still.
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“Throughout ancient history, we have always come together at this time, and everybody has something like that, so it’s not about religiosity on this album, it’s about spirit. Let’s talk about peace on Earth — what is that? What is ‘loving your neighbor’ and ‘goodwill’ — these ideas at Christmas. So I wrote some songs about that.
“And then I reworked my favorite Christmas hymn, which I never got to sing, because it was ‘O Holy Night’ and the soprano always got the solo on that. So I completely changed the song, rewrote it, made it a massive guitar solo and made it about the longest night — made it about just what I was saying, how all through time we have celebrated the sun going away and then coming back, and hey, we can work on this ‘Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men’ stuff. Maybe we can do that.”
Christmas was a fun time during her youth in Leavenworth, Kan., and she’s passed the fun on to her own children.
“For all the Midwest issues that I ever had with my parents, my father really turned it out at Christmas,” she said, making the holiday special for her and her older sister. “It was always a time when we came together and gave gifts.
“We used to open our presents on Christmas Eve, then Christmas morning, you’d wake up and Santa came, and there were a few unwrapped presents from Santa.
“We ate our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, and then we would have to wait. My mother would make us wait until all the dishes were clean and put away. It was horrible — it was torture,” she exclaimed. “And then we would start opening, and we’d be up all night opening presents. We had to open them up one at a time.”
Music also added a special glow to her childhood holidays.
“One of the first places I started singing was in choir in church,” she said. “We went to a Methodist church, and I have memories of the Christmas Eve services where I would go sing. I loved it. I loved the whole decoration of it and the beauty of it, and how everyone came together for that. I enjoyed the music very much.”
Christmas still is about family and making memories for her children. Her older kids are 20 and 21, and her twins are 12. They’re retained some of the traditions of Etheridge’s youth, with a few twists.
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The younger ones still bring a childlike wonder to her house. “It’s sweet,” she said, the way the older ones love helping to make the day special for the twins. And even though the kids are in on the secret, Santa still finds their house.
“We love to get together. My two oldest are out of the house, so they come back. We’re a Christmas morning (family). I could not get anyone to do the Christmas Eve thing. Now we open one present on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas morning,” she said.
“It’s funny, they don’t have as much routine. We always have a Christmas quiche — we really look forward to that. We really like the meal. I cook, and I love doing that.”
Her menu includes turkey and tofurky for the vegetarians, stuffing, mashed potatoes like her mom used to make, sweet potatoes, “a little casserole,” homemade cranberry sauce, and “it’s the one time I let them have crescent rolls,” she said. Desserts are the easy part, either indulging in a store-bought pumpkin pie or serving desserts gifted by friends and neighbors.
“We just enjoy being together, kinda being lazy and hanging out. It’s just a day where we all agree to just be with each other. It’s pretty wonderful.”
Beyond the trappings and traditions, joy is the spirit of Christmas she hopes people will keep in their hearts and lives year-round.
“Joy is an essential part of the human nature,” she said, “and I think we put it off. We don’t allow ourselves joy during the week, during other times. I wish joy were more of a priority the rest of the year.”
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WHAT: Melissa Etheridge
WHERE: Riverside Casino Event Center, 3184 Highway 22, Riverside
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday (12/8)
TICKETS: $45 to $70, Casino Gift Shop, (877) 677-3456 or Tickets.riversidecasinoandresort.com
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Melissaetheridge.com