John Lewis’ Newest Christmas Advert Is Touching — And Troubling

Written by Steve Pauwels on November 29, 2018

The US has its particular Christmas traditions as, naturally, do other societies — the United Kingdom, for instance, and its annual John Lewis & Partners holiday spot. The popular department store’s original foray into this media effort was a mere eleven years ago (2007), and in that brief span has become “one of the signals that the countdown to Christmas has begun in the UK … something of an annual tradition in British culture.” One source, in fact, has tagged it, “the most hotly anticipated marketing campaign of the year”.

In the past, I’ve been deeply moved by these lush and luminous promotions and, for me, Christmastime 2018’s iteration proves no exception. Pop music behemoth Elton John, believe it or not, figures front-and-center this time around. The two-minute-twenty-second presentation opens with an aged and somber EJ seated at an upright piano in the cozy, middle-class confines of a Christmas-bedecked parlour.

As he melancholically contemplates the ivories, picking out the introductory strains of his imperishable 1970 classic “Your Song”, the images begin tracking backwards over the course of his storied career: the superstar in this new century, then the 90s, 80s and 70s; suddenly, a raucous teen-aged Reginald Dwight (Elton’s birth name) hammering the keys amidst a dancing throng; next a bespectacled pre-adolescent performing uncertainly before a school assembly.

The montage, by and by, settles on a long-ago December 25th morning. A beautiful little boy scampers down the stairs to his mother and grandmum awaiting him in that same room viewed at the beginning. The little guy lights up like one of the bulbs glowing on the nearby tree as he gazes on a gift-wrapped bulk before him — revealed, as he tears aside the paper, to be the aforementioned upright piano.

Then, a fleeting return to the present-day singer/song-writer, smiling wistfully.

It’s a bittersweet mash-up of striking visuals and a never-gets-old tune, with just enough red-and-green, tinsel-and-garland flourishes to make it perfect for the season. Still, conspicuously absent from every segment? Nowhere in sight? A presumably steady and supportive male figure. As stated, mother and grandmother make an appearance (actually two). But Elton’s dad? Where’s he?

For those familiar with the backstory, it’s no secret the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer claims he and his father had disaffecting issues. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that Stanley Dwight, divorced from EJ’s mother in the early 1960s and who passed away in 1991, is AWOL in this version of the seventy-one-year-old artist’s musical journey.

As reported in the Daily Mail a few years back,

[T]he Elton John story has always painted the star as deeply affected by his parents’ divorce … [He’s claimed] his father didn’t love him and had rejected him in favour of his “second” family … [and] portrayed his father, a former RAF squadron leader, as a controlling monster who tried to impose his military sensibilities on his young son … He described their relationship as “pure hate” … that his father did not support his singing career … “He was taught that love had limits; you don’t show it in public, you don’t even show it in private”.

For the record: number-two wife and kids indignantly protest the elder Dwight is being slanderously misrepresented; that it was he, point of fact, who bought his prospective-superstar son that first piano; that he “never stopped loving” his son “Reggie”.

Yet, whatever the truth, Elton John’s perception of his son-father dynamic has transparently rattled him, shadowed him. The globally recognized “diva” specifically links his flamboyant persona and past, renowned bouts of substance abuse to the dysfunctional fatherly side of his upbringing.

“I’ve spent my life trying to prove to my father that I was a success,” he’s admitted.”

“He has been dead years and I’m still trying to prove the point. It stays with you … I tried to outrun my darkest secret; that I couldn’t love myself. I thought I didn’t deserve to be loved, cared for, or present in the world.”

Well — that’s heartbreaking.

I’d add his well-advertised homosexuality a likely consequence — yes, I still consider same-sex attractions to be a disorder — of what he reiterates was a bitter paternal relationship; or, perhaps more accurately, lack of relationship. Attentive observers might notice it’s distractingly common for out-and-proud “gay” celebrities to evince a damaged connection with the male half of their parentage. Meanwhile, mom? Predictably revered by them, even as dad is reliably derided (see: EJ’s comments) or, perhaps more customarily, simply left out of the picture (see: the John Lewis video).

Deny a lad healthy, persistent, male affirmation and affection and the fall-out can be life-distorting. A physically or emotionally abusive, or relationally distant father can leave a soul-centered vacuum in a young man that aches to be filled all his days. Certain ones will eventually seek other men to soothe that core wound. In whatever manner possible. Some of them deviate.

Clearly, there’s going to be more involved in this unfortunate process than just “bad” dads; other factors, likely, will be at work. But a taunting sense of fatherlessness? It can contribute an outsized and devastating role. The Divine design has always been that children interact meaningfully with their père, the individual who sired them and, therefore, is tasked with raising them. Short-circuit that heavenly ideal? How can the ramifications not be debilitating?

I’m so grateful I was raised by a father who instructed and modeled to me the basics of what it means to be a “man” — and, along the way, unstintingly lavished on me, my four brothers and sister hugs full of wholesome, physical affection. It was an everyday part of our household which I rather took for granted. I realize sheepishly I shouldn’t have done so. Too many adults can’t casually limn their early familial experience — their paternal experience — in such sanguine terms.

Hey, dads: spend time, face to face, with your offspring; hang around with them. Take them up in your arms — frequently; plaster big, wet, sloppy kisses on them – often. Say the words out loud — a lot: “I love you.”

That’s, hands down, the greatest gift you can ever leave your children. Piano included.

Image: Screen shot:

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.