If there was one thing John Prine loved, it was Christmas. The late singer-songwriter who died in 2020 kept a Christmas tree up in his office year-round and even dragged it into RCA‘s Studio A when recording what proved to be his final album, The Tree of Forgiveness, in 2018. As he told GQ at the time, “I don’t like to see Christmas trees torn down.”

In some ways, John Prine was like our own Christmas tree. He could connect to our inner child with his goofy singalong style, while also managing to represent universal ideals far beyond his physical manifestation. Decorating our lives with pretty songs and albums like ornaments, there was much more at play than pretty tinsel or glowing lights. Like an old Christmas ornament that has survived through the years, passed down from one generation to the next, he could simultaneously embody the joy of nostalgia and the pain of loss.

Prine understood this duality more than anyone, perfectly summing up the paradox in his trademark plain-spoken wit, “I got kind of an unusual Christmas present a couple of years back. I got a divorce for Christmas.” That comes from the pre-song banter of “All The Best”, taken from 1993’s A John Prine Christmas. Prine’s Christmas kissoff likens the demise of a relationship to the same ill fate he hates to see befall so many holiday firs, “I guess that love is like a Christmas card / You decorate a tree, you throw it in the yard / It decays and dies, and the snowmen melt / Well I once knew love, I knew how love felt.”

The eight-track A John Prine Christmas includes covers of holiday classics “Silver Bells” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”, a duet with Margo Timmins on “If You Were The Woman and I Was the Man” by band Cowboy Junkies, and five Prine originals. Among the Prine-penned standouts are “Christmas in Prison”, another example of Prine confronting the dual nature of the holidays. The author himself has copped to the song’s metaphorical nature, saying, “It’s about a person being somewhere like a prison, in a situation they don’t want to be in. And wishing they were somewhere else,” “Christmas in Prison” returns to the idea of what Christmas represents to John Prine and many others. Even amid internal or external turmoil, global or familial conflict, or the burden of loss, there is something transcendent about the ideals of Christmas, if only in our memories.

Related: Bright Eyes Share “Christmas In Prison” Cover Featuring John Prine [Listen]

Finally, A John Prine Christmas closes out with the title track, where we learn Prine’s holiday-loving origin story. The spoken word track includes tales of Prine’s “Christmas credentials,” including the time he ate an entire ornament when he was three years old, “So I guess I still got that Christmas in me all the time, you know?” There’s also the story of his first guitar, which for the first year he didn’t even learn to play, but rather just held in front of the mirror.

“Then my brother Dave taught me a couple of chords, now I’m here in your living room singing and talking to you,” Prine recollects. “It’s funny how things work out.”

The song and the album wind down with a summarization of the season of giving, “So-a whyn’t you go find a stranger and extend your hand to ’em.” It’s an idea Prine has explored before on his contender for one of the saddest songs ever written, “Hello in There”, to look out and spread love to the members of society who are usually forgotten. Those are the same people Prine writes songs for, from drug-addicted G.I.s to Middle Americans who have seen their paradise ravaged by industrial interests. John Prine never wants us to forget about them, especially at Christmas.

John Prine – A John Prine Christmas