fb-pixel Skip to main content

From Juliana Hatfield, a couple of slightly askew holiday tunes

The cover of Juliana Hatfield's "Christmas Cactus" and "Red Poinsettia."
The cover of Juliana Hatfield's "Christmas Cactus" and "Red Poinsettia."American Laundromat Records

It’s been more than 25 years since Juliana Hatfield wrote a song for a Christmas episode of the short-lived teen drama “My So-Called Life.” The song, “Make It Home,” wasn’t holiday-themed, but it did hint at the melodies of both “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Hatfield says she took her inspiration from Joni Mitchell, whose classic song “River” toys with the piano chords of “Jingle Bells.” This Christmas, the Boston-based songwriter is approaching the holiday from her usual sideways perspective once again: Her new single, a limited-edition pressing for Record Store Day’s Black Friday, features two original quasi-Yuletide songs, “Christmas Cactus” and “Red Poinsettia.”


The A-side, says Hatfield, “has been kicking around for years.” She wrote it as an ode to an actual Christmas cactus, a Brazilian plant that tends to bloom around the holiday season in North America. Hers, she says, refused to bloom, despite its otherwise seemingly robust health. “Time stands still/On the windowsill,” she coos.

“I have faith that someday it may bloom,” she says, explaining the song. “But if it doesn’t, that’s OK, too.”

Hatfield, who grew up in Duxbury, formed her first band, Blake Babies, in the mid-1980s. She has released nearly 20 albums under her own name and has collaborated with the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg and Matthew Caws of Nada Surf. In recent years she has recorded covers albums in tribute to Olivia Newton-John and the Police, with more to come.

After years of dormancy, Hatfield’s cactus finally bloomed a little this year, but at the wrong time. It sprouted a few flowers in the spring. “Why now?” Hatfield says. “I was wondering if it had anything to do with the lockdown.”

Juliana Hatfield
Juliana HatfieldDavid Doobinin

Because Hatfield lives alone in an apartment in Cambridge, the cactus has become a companion. “I tend to anthropomorphize objects,” she says.


She readily acknowledges that the song could be read as a metaphor for her own self-identification as a “late bloomer.”

“I didn’t learn to drive until I was 21,” she says. “I just do things later than my peers do in general, I guess.”

For Hatfield, most Christmas music is like wallpaper.

“I’ve never really actively sought it out,” she says, “but it’s not unpleasant.” She’s fond of the “Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack — the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time Is Here” is being reissued on vinyl as another Record Store Day exclusive — and the “warm, fuzzy feeling” triggered by certain carols, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

“‘Tidings of comfort and joy’ — that’s just a really nice line.”

But the B-side of her single, “Red Poinsettia,” might hint at her next project, which is a little darker than your typical Christmas jingle. The title suggests another seasonal trimming, but the lyrics reveal it’s a red herring.

“In my mind, it’s the Christmas murder ballad,” she says. Her next album, to be called “Blood,” should be out in the spring. In this crazy year, she’s not quite ready to think that far ahead. She’s not even ready to make any Christmas plans.

“I’m only thinking a week at a time. All I know is November will come to a close, then I’ll decide what’s next.”

Email James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.