I admit it: I’m the Christmas holdout in our house. By mid-November the other three members of our family are ready to take out our tree and decorations. Each year I try to push for the first of December. I generally lose. (Their victory came on November 21 this year, on a Friday when I was out of the house.)
But I’m not a grinch, though, nor am I a scrooge. Once the tree is up, I embrace the season as wholeheartedly as the rest of them. The lights, the smells of Christmas baking, the long winter evenings to sit and read beside the tree… I celebrate it all.
More than anything, I love the music. For the music I would almost break my rules about not celebrating Christmas too early. I don’t care whether it’s Johnny Mathis singing “Sleigh Ride” or John Lennon declaring “War is Over.” Dig out the tunes and play them boldly, I say.
Certain Christmas pieces become classics, and at the top of my list is Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, but there are so many. Mid-century voices like Bing Crosby’s seem simply to breathe the cheerful chill air of the season when we hear them. That the Beach Boys are the very sound of an endless summer itself takes nothing out of my enjoyment of their sole lasting Christmas hit, that greatest of all sixties car songs, “Little Saint Nick.”
But the greatest Christmas classics of all have to be the carols the Christian church has sung for ages, and especially the last few centuries. As the Advent season arrives, I finally get to turn the pages of our hymnal to the section celebrating the incarnation. Choosing the songs we’ll sing over those next few Sundays is a treat I’m lucky to enjoy.
Like other Christmas music, though (like other Christmas everything, for that matter), Christmas carols are a mixed bag. For every precious heirloom there are at least a couple of tchotchkes. A glance at the hymnbook bears this out. If we had easy access to more of the church’s forgotten carols, I’m sure we’d be even quicker to admit the sad ratio of bad to good. Still, as it stands, the older carols that continue to get regular use (maybe a dozen or two in most hymnals) make up a pretty impressive treasury.
Their melodies are, for the most part, instant in their power to evoke at the same time a sense of our own childhood Christmases and that scene in the middle east at the turn of the eras. But the words themselves are a wonder in their theological and emotional strength. I doubt there’s a better sung statement of the saving value of the incarnation anywhere than in those middle verses of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel…
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.”
That’s just a most obvious beginning. There is so much of value in those carols that, looking at most newer pieces, one might lament the divide that now seems to exist between those who think deeply about the faith and many of those who generously give the church songs to sing.
This is the first in a series of five blog posts, in which we’ll aim to pay attention to some of the hidden treasures in our carols that lie largely unnoticed due not to neglect but over-familiarity. We’ll be hearing these songs anyway this season. Maybe we can train our ears to hear as for the first time the truth they proclaim.