The Powerful Meaning of Joni Mitchell’s Sad Christmas Song, “River”

In 2023, the 1971 song “River” by Joni Mitchell is practically a Christmas standard, with 432 versions recorded by artists from Barry Manilow to Olivia Rodrigo. But Joni Mitchell didn’t record it as a Christmas song.

It took Linda Ronstadt to see its holiday potential when she recorded “River” in 2000, and the story she told The Washington Post about the meaning of the song keeps me listening to it every Advent.

Why do we enjoy a holiday song about someone skating away from Christmas on a frozen river?

Ronstadt said she has always considered “River” to be a song about Mitchell’s daughter. “I think that’s what a lot of her singing is about, because it has this very sad tinge,” she said.

Mitchell has described the painful story of the child she had in the 1960s. “My daughter’s father left me three months pregnant in an attic room with no money and winter coming on and only a fireplace for heat,” she said. “The spindles of the banister were gap-toothed — fuel for last winter’s occupants.”

Her brief marriage ended and Joni put the child up for adoption. She went on to become one of the greatest recording artists of our time, but echoes of that experience fill her greatest songs: “Urge for Going,” is about a man who won’t stay; “The Circle Game,” is about losing childhood innocence; “Both Sides Now” is about losing faith in love.

But it’s her album Blue that takes this subject head on. The album includes the song “Little Green,” which was Joni’s nickname for the daughter she lost. The song describes signing over her child, and then becomes a book of lost memories, “icicles” and “birthday clothes” and “crocuses to bring to school tomorrow.”

The song “River” is on the same album and has the same pain. 

Joni sings:

“It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees;
They’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

If you think of it as a song about losing a lover, the words fit; but if you think of it as a song about a mother missing her child during the holidays, the words are stunning. And surely, “a river to skate away on” is a reference not to her circumstances in sunny California where she recorded the song, but to frozen Canada years earlier.

Why does she want to skate away at Christmas? Because “I made my baby cry … I made my baby say goodbye.” She accuses herself of acting rashly and regrets that “Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.”

Joni’s story has a happy ending, though

In 1997, Joni learned that her daughter was looking for her biological mother and jumped at the chance to meet her because she “always had a lot of guilt surrounding the whole situation with her child and an incredibly strong drive to find her,” according to the documentary linked below.

Joni describes with amazement the moment her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, came to her door. The two were instantly compatible, Gibb says: “It felt like I had gone away on a trip for a couple of months and I was coming home.”

The documentary goes on to call Joni’s story “a master’s class in love … that you can only experience through your relationship with a child.”  Motherhood “was the missing piece and with this piece complete, not only was her family complete, but in a weird way her work was complete.”

Now, her daughter says that, for her and her children, “Joni doesn’t look like a grandmother or act like a grandmother. She’s like a mother of the three of us.”

I love what “River” says about motherhood, Advent, and Christmas.

Our culture often thinks of a woman with a child as “just” a mom — as if motherhood prevents women from doing so much more. But in Joni Mitchell’s story, severing the mother-child relationship caused an abyss of longing that inspired one of the greatest artists of our time, but never satisfied her. Only motherhood could do that. Being a 10-time Grammy winner cited as an influence by everyone from Prince to Taylor Swift is nothing compared to being a mom.

The song is perfect for Advent, which longs for a baby who should be here but isn’t, and looks to a mother who shouldn’t be a mother but is.

“River” is right for Christmas the way It’s a Wonderful Life is, because it shows how when someone is missing, “he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’” And “River” delivers the same lesson as  A Christmas Carol, forcing us to look at what we should have done but haven’t — and who we should have become but didn’t.

And Joni’s happy ending is like the Gospels: The innocence we lost is not gone forever, but is knocking at our door.

Watch: Joni Mitchell Finding Her Daughter.

Image: Alamy; Isle of Wight 1970.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.