Of Comets And Falling Men
What we will miss in the sky if we have our eyes fixed on earthly things
Ack! What a day! I spent most of it in bed, apparently having some sort of relapse of Epstein-Barr (mononucleosis), which weirdly, comes and goes. This is pretty rare, a rheumatologist told me. Lucky me, woo. What triggers this, said the doctor, is stress. Ergo, I should have seen it coming. I stayed off my blog today, mostly because I’m working on a deadline project, but also because the bad news is just too much. I needed a break. Basically, though, this has been a Bill The Cat kind of day.
Sorry about that. Some days you’ll get some original thoughts from me here. Other days you’ll get mostly passages from books that helped me to understand the world a little better, and love it a little more.
Hope And Beauty
I’ve been telling people that I write this newsletter as a kind of spiritual discipline, to compel myself to look for reasons to hope, and to affirm what is good in life. I don’t always write here about cheerful things, but I do try to look past the news events into more subtle phenomena that appeal to me or challenge me, even if I don’t have the answers. It is much more difficult to do this newsletter than to write my blog. Part of that is my own disposition, I guess, but a lot of it is just the times in which we live.
I like to say that I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful. Optimism says that everything can only get better. But that’s not realistic. Hope, on the other hand, says that things might get better, but if they don’t, and we meet bad times in the right spirit, that God can use them, and us, for good.
Pope Benedict XVI told his interviewer Peter Seewald, in Salt of the Earth:
We have spoken a great deal about faith. To begin with, it is the root that opens up the basic decision to perceive God, to take God at his word, and to accept him. And that’s the key that explains everything else.
This faith implies hope, for the world as it is, is not simply good, nor should it stay that way. If you consider it in purely empirical terms, you could think that evil is the chief power in the world. To have Christian hope means to know about evil and yet to go to meet the future with confidence. The core of faith rests upon accepting being loved by God, and therefore to believe is to say Yes, not only to him, but to creation, to creatures, above all, to men, to try to see the image of God in each person and thereby to become a lover. That’s not easy, but the basic Yes, the conviction that God has created men, that he stands behind them, that they aren’t simply negative, gives love a reference point that enables it to ground hope on the basis of faith. In this sense, hope contains the element of confidence in the face of our imperiled history, but it has nothing to do with utopia: the object of hope is not the better world of the future but eternal life. The expectation of the better world supports no one, for it’s not our world, and everyone has to deal with his world, with his future. The world of the coming generations is essentially moulded by the freedom of these generations and can be determined by us in advance only to a very limited extent. But eternal life is indeed my future and thus a power that shapes history.
For me, encounters with beauty often spur me to return to hope, because they are an inbreaking of God into our mundane reality. There’s a lovely little book called On Beauty And Being Just, by Elaine Scarry, a Harvard professor of aesthetics. In it, Scarry quotes Marcel Proust, writing about the face of a girl serving milk at a train stop:
I could not take my eyes from her face which grew larger as she approached, like a sun which it was somehow possible to stare at and which was coming nearer and nearer, letting itself be seen at close quarters, dazzling you with its blaze of red and gold.
Proust wishes her to remain forever in his perceptual field and will alter his own location to bring that about: “to go with her to the stream, to the cow, to the train, to be always at her side.”
This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.
Isn’t that beautiful, and true? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a simple but profound description of what it means to learn, or to put it another way, to be taught (because per Scarry, the act of learning requires passiveness and receptivity). Teaching is a work of love, of fertilization that will bear fruit in time.
One of the happiest moments of my life came in the early winter of 1986, or maybe 1987. I was an undergraduate in a course on Existentialism, taught by Prof. Greg Schufreider at LSU. I just looked him up to see if he was still there. Sure enough, he is — and is now chairman of the Philosophy Department. Here’s how he looks today:
Is that not exactly how you want your philosophy professor to look? Well, I’ll tell you, he looked the same way in the 1980s, when he taught me, except his beard was not so white. This class, Existentialism, was the best one I took in college, hands down. We read four philosophers that fall: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and Heidegger. Schufreider was a terrific lecturer, and made their ideas live. In fact, now that I think of it, my older son is at LSU; I’m going to encourage him to take that same class, which Schufreider still teaches. It changed my life.
It changed my life because it made me think, really think, about my own way of life, and my own commitments. Me, I was totally taken by Kierkegaard. I had no idea that philosophy had so much to say about what it meant to be really human. And, reading Kierkegaard, I discovered how deep and serious Christianity could be. I saw that SK (as he is called within philosophical discourse) was just as frustrated as I was with the deadness of bourgeois Christianity, but I also saw, through his eyes, how profound and life-giving Christianity could be. Reading Nietzsche was dazzling, but it compelled me to take the kinds of ideas that were common among us non-believing undergraduates to their logical end. I have no idea what, if any, religious commitments Schufreider had or has, but I ended that course believing that the choice I had was either God or the abyss.
I didn’t really want either, but Kierkegaard and Nietzsche revealed to me that this really was, to use SK’s famous term, the ultimate Either/Or. To refuse to choose, one way or the other, was a form of cowardice. I was, at that time, a coward. But it was useful to get that learned.
So, the emotional peak of my undergraduate career and one of the happiest moments of my life came when I was studying for the Existentialism final exam with three other guys from my class who were as deeply into it as I was. We commandeered a table at a little cafe called the Gumbo Shop, just off campus, ordered beer, and began to go over our notes. I have no idea how long we were at it, but we really got into it. Round and round we went, restating the arguments of the great thinkers, questioning each other, making sure we had it all clear in our minds. It was so intense, so, so … joyful. There’s no other word for it. The sense of communion we had in that long moment, of shared discovery, of brotherhood. I remember getting up at one point to go to the bathroom, and looking around the restaurant. Everyone there was quiet, listening to us. We had not realized how loud we had been, but they didn’t seem to mind. We four young scholars had put on quite a show. I know now that if I were sitting in a cafe listening to four students talk about ideas with such passion, I would have fallen silent too, and cherished the beauty of it.
Gosh, I haven’t thought about that in years. In a way, so much of my life since then has been about trying to recreate that moment of grace — or, as Prof. Scarry has it, trying to maneuver myself into a position to be able to see the comet when it passes.
I had a similar experience back in 2013, from the depths of being really sick with Epstein-Barr, lost in a dark emotional and spiritual wood, and discovering Dante. If you’ve read my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, you know this story. I happened to be in a Barnes & Noble one afternoon, and saw high up on the shelf in the small poetry section several editions of the Commedia. I thought that it would have been nice to have read it when I was younger, but surely I could not understand it now. Still, I took it down, and read the first two cantos. Lightning struck, but the thunder didn’t sound until several days later, when I couldn’t get the memory of what I had read out of my head. I bought the book, and was off on a journey that changed — that saved — my life.
Here is Dante, from Canto I of Paradiso, when he begins his journey through the heavens, guided by his teacher:
Beatrice stood with her eyes fixed solely
on the eternal spheres and, withdrawing mine
from above, I now fixed them on her.
What I saw in her changed me within,
As Glaucus was when he tasted the herb
that made him one of the gods of the sea.
Dante refers to the myth of Glaucus, a mortal fisherman who ate a magical herb that turned him into a sea creature. The glory of God shining through Beatrice in this realm of light “transhumanized” (Dante’s word) the pilgrim, turning him into something other than he was. I think discovering beauty, truth, and goodness works like that on us, if we are open to it.
So many aren’t. Some people treat learning as entirely instrumental: teach me what I need to know to get a job, or to do the thing I want to do. Friends who teach in college have told me over the past decade or so that students have become much more cautious and anxious, just wanting to get the right answer — not for the sake of discovering truth for its own sake, but to pass the course and keep climbing through the meritocracy.
Don’t you think it has always been this way? Consider Auden’s great poem Musée des Beaux Arts. Icarus is the comet here:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
In the Brueghel painting, which I’ve embedded at the top of this post, you can barely see the legs of Icarus sticking out of the sea. The ploughman in the foreground is indifferent to the drama taking place around him. This brings to my mind the last lines of Canto XIV of Dante’s Purgatorio, in which Guido del Luca, temporarily blinded to purge him of the sin of envy, laments to the pilgrim Dante how men of earth are too busy caught up in the everyday — particularly in envy for what each other has — that they lose sight of heavenly things:
The heavens call to you and wheel about you,
revealing their eternal splendors,
but your eyes are fixed upon the earth.
For that, He, seeing all, does smite you.
The poet Dante (through his character Guido) says here that an unwillingness to open our eyes to higher things leads to vice, and to suffering. If we do not draw near to those who can teach us to scan the sky in the right place for comets, we will suffer.
Christmas Carol Poll Results
Last night I asked readers to send in your one-paragraph explanations of your favorite Sacred Carol, your favorite Secular Carol, and your Most Hated Christmas Song. From the mailbag:
Sacred: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
I think this is my favorite sacred Christmas carol for its association with A Christmas Carol, my all-time favorite Christmas story. Though not explicitly a Christian story, the themes of sin, forgiveness, repentance and redemption run bone-deep throughout it. I never fail to ugly-cry when Scrooge is redeemed at the end.
I love how joyous and full of energy this song is. It perfectly mirrors my mood after Thanksgiving. Listening to it, I want to dance - no, skate - through the house, putting up decorations, raising a tree, hanging lights, and all with a hot mug of something delicious in hand. I also love how the song alludes to so many of the things I love about this season, and especially when it briefly dips into a minor key for "scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago," which I understand to be a reference to A Christmas Carol. (See above.)
BONUS: Bob Rivers did a truly inspired parody of this song, It's the Most Fattening Time of the Year. It's my first Christmas season as an Orthodox Christian, and fasting through the entire month is spiritually nourishing, but it's going to take some getting used to. I'm taking the "wade into the pool a step at a time" approach rather than the "cannonball into the deep end" approach to fasting.
Most Hated:Last Christmas (by Wham!)
It's so empty, and so catty.
RUNNER-UP: anything by the Chipmunks. Can't stand those squeaky voices. Once again, Bob Rivers hit it out of the park with Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire, which I listen to with a certain savage joy every year. (It may forever color your impression of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, so listen at your peril.)
Favorite Sacred Carol: "Good Christian Men, Rejoice"
I decided to narrow this category down to songs that could be sung by amateurs while caroling or at church. (There are several choral Christmas works that I love, but should only be attempted by professionals!) I like "Good Christian Men..." (not "friends") because it contains the basic Christmas message; brings to mind Victorian England; has Anglican pedigree; and, with its rousing tune, is fun to sing. Pre-Covid, our church would go caroling in Old Town Alexandria. There was something about singing this song in the historic district in the chilly night that epitomizes Christmas cheer for me.
Favorite Secular Carol: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
I like the mid-20th Century American Christmas tunes ("The Christmas Song," "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "White Christmas," etc.), but I think my favorite is "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." This song evokes images of sitting in front of the fireplace with family, the Christmas tree lit up, and glasses of eggnog (with or without some bourbon) - the classic Christmas scene. Sara Groves has recorded a delightful version of it. May the line "Next year, our troubles will be out of sight..." be prophetic.
Most Hated Carol: "Here Comes Santa Claus"
There is a heavenly host worth of atrocious Christmas songs that wing their way to FM radio this time of year (Wham's "Last Christmas," Lennon's "Happy Xmas," "Santa Baby," McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," Annie Lennox's creepy version of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" and more), but my least favorite of all Christmas songs is "Here Comes Santa Claus." It tops my list because of how it mashes up the secular with the sacred. "Say your prayers 'cause Santa Claus comes tonight?...Peace on Earth will come to all if we just follow the light, so let's give thanks to the Lord above 'cause...Santa Claus comes tonight?!" This should not be. Where's cancel culture when we need it?
Best sacred carol
This is a tough one since there are so many! I'll say up front I prefer the less commonly heard carols. I vote for "Lo, How a Rose e'er blooming." It is one of the most lovely to sing in a choir because you can hear the other parts winding around your part like the tendrils and vines of a rose bush. The lyrics are lovely as well--the last verse always hits me in the gut:
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.
Secular-- "Have yourself a Merry little Christmas." The Judy Garland version. Lovely melody, and the sad wistfulness reminds one that not everybody is having a great time. Seems particularly appropriate this year since we're all going to have to have a "little" Christmas.
Most Hated-- "Mary did you know?"
Why it's bad is explained by the great Alexandra Petri:
"This song sounds as though we’re badgering the witness. “Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? NOTHING FURTHER, YOUR HONOR!”
Favorite Sacred Carol - In dulci Jubilo
For me this carol has come to mean Christmas, I when I played it in church, then I know the season is truly arrived. The text and tune emerge from Germany in the 13th or 14th century, the first written version is from the German Dominican mystic, Suso. He was born around 1294 and died in 1366. In a devotional manual he wrote in 1328, he describes a vision of Angels, and how they taught him this carol. He is a little nebulous but he might indicate that the carol tune may have already existed. I love it because it really feels like dance music and some carols were probably danced as they were sung in the Middle Ages. It also has such an infectious tune and it cries out for a musician to play with it. The tune can also be turned into something decidedly tender and sweet, dance, lullaby, paean it is all there, in text and melody. Perhaps it is a musician’s carol, it has inspired composers for nearly 700 years, but it is certainly more than that.
The text also gets to the messy realty of the birth and the raucous sense of unrestrained joy we should feel at the birth, the original Latin and German words get it better than the typical English translations, but still it is all there, except in the watered down “Good Christian Friends…” bowdlerized translations. Here is my literal attempt of the Latin and English following after the translation of the New Oxford Book of Carols
In sweetest jubilation, let song and gladness flow
Our hearts now live within the light in the manger,
Like the sun he shines, in your mother’s lap.
Alpha and Omega.
You infant Jesus,
I yearn for you always
You console and comfort me
O best of boys,
Through all your goodness
O prince of Glory,
Draw me to heaven!
O love of the father,
O merciful Son!
We were all lost
Through our sins
But he has gained for us
The joys of heaven,
Where joys never end.
Where are our joys?
Nowhere, but in heaven
There the angels are singing
And the bells are ringing
In the courts of the King.
O that we were there!
I am found of the 19th century Neale translation, and like many things at Christmas I have found memories of singing it in the little white board country Baptist church I grew up attending. Out the window where we always sat were the graves of six generations of my mother’s people. Although as the hymn in English and Christmas itself has the earthy and the sublime mixed – so we boys sitting together were thrilled and shocked and had to suppress our giggles as everyone got to sing the word “ass” in church. One boyhood friend would always pick it during December in the Sunday school opening exercises just to sing “…ox and ASS before him bow…” So it ever is with stupid little boys, of which I was once one.
Favorite Secular Carol – The Gloucestershire Wassail
I heard this carol for the first time in college, the less prestigious vocal ensemble was singing at the tree lighting ceremony on campus. After the event I could not get the infectious tune out of my head and I loved the rural humor of it all. It truly has the feel of English cobblestones under one’s feet. It sums upon the bodily delight in the feasting and gathering of Christmas, but not without the tension of joy, community, and threats that were part of the old caroling tradition. Small town politics in a carol, in the grand sense. More like trick-or-treat in many ways with the desire for Good wishes in exchange for food and drink with all the implied threats. Here the stingy butler who doesn’t bring forth the best beer for the carolers has his soul condemned to hell.
Least Favorite Carol – Any secular Christmas song created post 1945, especially if the Beatles are involved.
I just turned against commercially produced secular Christmas music in my late teens and while I have softened on the Bing Crosby – Great American Songbook stuff – mainly because it reminds me of my parents and grandparents playing those songs on record and radio in my childhood, and my wife loves them. However, nothing brings out the Scrooge in me more than any of the nail-on-chalk board horrors the Beatles put out – top or bottom of the list of deplorable Christmas schlock, “Christmas Time is Here Again.” I do not have words for the hatred that burns in me like the fires of a thousand suns when I hear this. There is no real tune, it is screeched out in the worst part of the vocal range, the lyrics are meaningless, inane, and empty. Other than that – it’s great.
I reserve my love and hatred for the sacred carols. If I don't like a secular carol, it's just a matter of taste; the great secular carols, though, communicate powerful truths about God beautifully, and the bad ones mess up the truth, the beauty, or both.
And in that light, I nominate "Mary did you know?" as the worst. I'm a Southern Baptist in Georgia. We're not within 100 miles of being in danger of mariolotry. But that song treats Mary like a moron. Scripture tells us that Mary -- at the very least -- is favored by God, to be called blessed throughout all generations, and had an incredibly deep theology of the Messiah (see the Magnificat). The song, while it says some nice things about Jesus, is framed by a stupid question with an obvious answer: "Um, yes; see Luke 1, Mr. Biblically Illiterate Singer Dude."
The Christmas carol that elicits the most memories of my childhood, of my parents and grandparents, is the German carol, "Süßer die Glocken nie klingen". It's the Christmases of my youth in one song.
Here's a link to a good rendition of it (hopefully the link works) featuring the Fischer Chöre:
And here are the lyrics with a fairly decent translation:
The title of the song is "The Bells Never Ring Sweeter", although the translations I've seen online don't translate the word "never" (nie), so it comes out as "The Bells Ring Any Clearer" or something like that, which isn't really right. Anyway, you'll get the idea.
As devout as I am, I can't say that I have a sacred Christmas carol that speaks to me on a deep level (although I always have been partial to God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen sung by a baritone). But my favorite secular Christmas carol is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It can bring me to tears. But I will never forgive Frank Sinatra for changing the lyrics.
The song is melancholy, as the holidays often are. Ten years ago, I moved 2,000 miles away from my parents for a job. That job turned into marriage and kids and a life here. I love what God has built for me here and do not want to leave. But spending the holidays away from my parents and siblings and grandparents (may they rest in peace) does something to my spirit. So the central idea of the song -- have a merry Christmas this year despite all of its flaws and the people you can't see and maybe next year will be better -- is one that speaks to me. It should be the official Christmas carol for 2020.
But Sinatra hated it precisely because it was melancholy. He was the one who re-wrote "until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow" as "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." Muddling through is the point, Ol' Blue Eyes! If the holidays give you twinges of sadness and regret, you muddle through. I love Mel Torme's version of the song and play it all the time during December, but when he sings about the bough, I always change it to muddling. Let's all muddle through this Christmas.
Sacred: Lauridson's "O Magnum Mysterium": I sing in a choir and have had opportunity to sing this overwhelming piece a few times. It may be, however, better listened to. To sit in an old stone church with resonant acoustics, and let the chords and latin sweep over and through me, there's nothing like it. The memory I come back to is listening to it a few Christmases back in Trinity Church on Wall Street, during a weekday lunch hour. It was transcendent. Lauridsen got his inspiration from a Zurberan painting and describes in the video below how he found a way to incorporate Mary's sorrow at watching her son die on the cross, with one note placed with the word "virgin". It's a sacred experience, from the first note to the last, for me.
Secular: Growing up in Africa and attending boarding school, nothing was more exciting than counting the days till the end of the semester when we could fly home and see our parents for Christmas. Being dry season, it would be hot enough to swim in the river and walk barefoot everywhere. So it was natural for my sister and her friends to change the words of "White Christmas" to "I'm Dreaming of a Brown Christmas" with lines like "where the eucalyptus rustle and children hustle to get to MAF on time" (MAF=Missionary Aviation Fellowship). Gets me every time.
Stupid: I love the Roches' Christmas album but I have to say their rendition of "Frosty" is the one I think of when I hate on the song.
Secular: "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever" by Sufjan Stevens. All of Stevens' wistful poignance is concentrated in this jewel of harsh realism that turns and rises in its conclusion into a compunctionate hymn to the Resurrection. Nothing else quite allows me to see the hidden glory of the season in all the wrack and ruin of family agonies and personal failures.
Sacred: Veni, veni, Emmanuel ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel"). Tears come to my eyes when I hear the lines, Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death's dark shadows put to flight, and O come, Adonai, Lord of might, Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height, in ancient times didst give the law in cloud and majesty and awe. I once heard an account that Archbishop Averky Taushev, a holy and strict ascetic prelate of the post-revolutionary Russian emigration, said that Christmas carols, of all western Christian popular devotion, most retained the fragrance of Orthodoxy. I am sure this hymn's juxtaposition of Christ's tenderness and incomparable majesty reflects what Vladyka Averky had in mind.
A short one:
Favorite sacred carol: O Come Emmanuel —embodies the hope for the coming Messiah
Favorite secular carol: Jingle Bells (the Fred awarding version). Expresses the human joy that comes from God’s creation.
Hated/disliked carol: just about every postmodern/post-Christian adaptation of traditional carols. From the Christ-less small “c” christmas Hallmark movie to the Amazon music versions, they quite frankly, make my skin crawl.
Here’s one from a reader in New Hampshire:
This is so highly individualistic. My favourite is really an Advent carol - Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending - sung to the tune 'Helmsley'. I became an Episcopalian in 1991 after discovering 'high church' at a Parish in Evanston, Illinois, where I was living and working at the time. I used to be an usher - 'sidesman' in English parlance. We would sing this hymn every Adventide. There I would be, standing on the Vermont blue slate floor at the back of the Nave, singing the words at the top of my voice, tears streaming down my face. I find myself concentrating quite a bit these days on the parousia of our Lord. For me, Advent is much more about the Second Coming than the First, which is how it was presented to me in childhood.
My favourite secular carol would have to be The Christmas Song as well, but the Nat Cole version. Hearing his smooth rendition takes me back to my childhood in the 50s and early 60s, all the wonder of the tree on Christmas morning, the feelings of celebration and amity, the warmth and safety of home. A sensitive child, me, one that was bullied into a dream world by the time I was twelve!
Most disliked Christmas carols/songs would have to be Santa Baby on the secular side and Away in a Manger on the sacred. How decadent is Santa Baby! How steeped in false values, how sexualised! Away in a Manger (my mother's favourite) to me bespeaks the infant Jesus, so 'tender and mild', so vulnerable, so easily destroyed should he attempt to lay upon us any onerous burdens. I much prefer the coming King Jesus, the Jesus of restoration, ultimate truth and new life.
Sacred: I'm going to cheat and name two. "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," first, because the glory and triumph of Jesus Christ, the Son of God humbling Himself to take on human flesh, is nowhere better expressed than through the majestic tune of this song. The lyrics are also packed with detailed theology: the Trinity, the virgin birth, the defeat of sin and death through the Incarnation and Resurrection. You could easily convert a nonbeliever using only the theology so concisely and poetically expressed in this carol.
Second, Bob Seger's version of "The Little Drummer Boy." It's the opposite of the grandeur in "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," but that's precisely why I love it. Seger's rough voice captures the insecurity of the boy's humble approach to the newborn King and his untrained drumming skills, which in turn captures the nature of how we all must approach Jesus: who are any of us compared to Him but ragged little drummer boys, come to offer our broken selves and our weak talents in tribute to Him? But as in the song, the miraculous happens in the end: when we offer ourselves to Jesus, He smiles. And we receive the most glorious gift of all: the salvation He came to buy for us. Seger's halting delivery of this last line perfectly expresses the wonder we must all feel at such acceptance and forgiveness.
Secular: "Where Are You, Christmas?" by Faith Hill, because this song captures the ache in my heart the first Christmas after my grandfather, the person I looked up to perhaps most in this world, passed away: "I'm not the same one/See what the time's done/Is that why you have let me go?" How could it possibly be Christmas when he was gone, and how dare the rest of the world find joy in this holiday when I couldn't? Eventually, my faith gave me peace--the lyrics are right that finding love (I'll insert Christ's love, specifically), in your heart means that Christmas is always with you--and I went back to loving my favorite holiday again, but it was a hard road to tread to get there. And to tell the truth, Christmas simply never has been the same since my grandfather died. A hole was made by his absence that can never be filled, no matter how many carols I listen to or how much turkey I eat or how many presents I wrap. There's something indelible about the first Christmas after your first close family member dies, and like the Ghost of Christmas Past, it haunts all the ones that follow. But it's a friendly haunting, and I'm grateful for it, because it keeps my grandfather's memory close until I see him again.
Most Hated: "Happy Xmas (War is Over)": there are so many things wrong with this so-called Christmas song, starting with spelling Christmas "Xmas." This abbreviation should be relegated to boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations stuffed into the attic, and even then used sparingly or not at all. What an insult to our risen Lord, Jesus Christ, to remove His name from the very name of the holiday celebrating His birth and replace it with, of all things, a crude "X"! Have we really stooped so low in our laziness that we cannot be bothered to spell His name? (Don't answer that. I fear I know.) And the slogging repetitiveness of this song is grating, as are the insipid lyrics: "A very merry Christmas/And a happy New Year/Let's hope it's a good one/Without any fear." I grit my teeth just thinking about it. Change the radio station STAT, please, before my ears start bleeding.
Best Sacred: Of the Father's Love Begotten / Aurelius Clemens Prudentius
This fourth century poem turned plainsong carol is the one I look forward to most each year. The truths of the incarnation are meditatively chanted, and the haunting medieval melody perfectly sets off the mystery of God become flesh. The piece works as well in a home as in a majestic cathedral, and is best a capella.
O that birth forever blessed,
when the Virgin, full of grace,
by the Holy Ghost conceiving,
bore the Savior of our race;
and the babe, the world's Redeemer,
first revealed his sacred face,
evermore and evermore!
Best Secular: Christmas Time is Here / Vince Guaraldi Trio
This Charlie Brown classic is easily one of the best secular Christmas songs. Guaraldi's distinctive jazz is comforting and beautiful and the words reflect the best parts of Christmas: "Sleigh bells in the air / Beauty everywhere / Yuletide by the fireside / And joyful memories there." While it is easy listening in a sense, the song and connection to Charlie Brown also capture the bluer notes and sadness that accompany holidays for various reasons. In other words, you don't have to be in a good mood to listen to it, and it is at home on "melancholy Christmas" lists as well as happy ones.
Most Hated: Last Christmas / WHAM!
At its worst, the post-Christian West's annual Winterval celebration is a grotesque frenzy of brightly-lit commercial cash grabbing. The "sales events" starting in early November; the made-in-China socks, custom printed with your pet's face under a Santa hat for the perfect "this is funny! I'll never wear it" gift; the must-see seasonal TV specials 'reuniting' the out-of-work casts of those shows you never even watched in the late '80s when they were originally terrible... For this chimeric promise of gift-induced lasting joy, what could be a more apt soundtrack than "Last Christmas" by 'Wham!'? Vague lyrics about transitory romance put to a catchy tune, framed around an otherwise irrelevant seasonal reference that ensures media royalties in perpetuity; a "timeless classic" annually reminding us that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas long after George Michael is no longer present to answer for his crime.
I almost chose “Christmastime is Here,” because it’s so gentle and melancholy. Diana Krall does a great version on her Christmas album.
Oh, last one, from another lover of “Christmastime is Here”:
Favorite carol: "The Cherry Tree Carol." The melody I prefer - because, as is the case with probably all of the traditional British songs, the lyric has been set to many - is the one used by the marvelous Jean Ritchie. I think it's also the version Joan Baez uses.
If there has ever been a lovelier, more charming Christmas carol I'm not aware of it. The storyline is apocryphal, but it's permissibly so, my Protestant reflexes say, because it foreshadows Matthew 11. In that chapter, Jesus tells disciples of the baffled, probably despairing, imprisoned John the Baptist that John can put to rest his doubts that Jesus is Christ because "the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them."
Favorite secular Christmas song: "Christmas Time Is Here," from A Charlie Brown Christmas. This is a fascinating song. I don't know of anything else at all like it. It seems as original in music and concept as "She Loves You" still does, at least, to me. To my knowledge there had never been a sad children's Christmas song in American popular culture. It's as if the characters of the children who are singing it grasp the deep sadness of the Incarnation, that its primary purpose was the death of Christ.
The unhappy truth for me, though, is that I can't listen to it anymore because it was the first song I heard on the radio after the hospital phoned to tell me my mother had died. So, my runner up must be my favorite: "The Christmas Waltz," written for Frank Sinatra by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. This song has an open - heartedness and generosity of spirit to it which should endear it to everyone.
Most hated: I can't take the Springsteen "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" version seriously enough to hate it. "A Holly Jolly Christmas is too insipid for me to hate. And the winner is, "Feliz Navidad." I think the fittest word for this thing is "assaultive."
I received some thoughtful comments about the Bruderhof, but Substack tells me I’m at the end of the length it can accommodate in a single newsletter. I’ll send the Bruderhof comments in a special weekend edition. I try not to write on the weekend, but if I’m sending out your comments, that doesn’t count, does it?
If you’ve got something to say, e-mail me at roddreher — at — substack — dot — com. Unless you tell me otherwise, I’ll assume it’s all reproducible here, though I won’t use your name unless you ask me to do so. I’d really like to hear your stories of your own epiphanies of learning, and the teachers that showed you where to look in the sky for the comet.