Do You Hear What I Hear?

Members of the gospel choir of St. Saviour High School in Brooklyn, New York, December 5, 2019 (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz).

December 10. The Christmas party begins innocently (and a few days before the arrival of the omicron variant puts an end to Christmas parties). Mulled wine simmers on the stove. Cinnamon sticks bob in the pot. One table is laid with gorgonzola and goat cheese, dishes of olives and smoked salmon spread. The other is for sweets: chocolate crinkles, raspberry-lemon linzers, and hastily iced gingerbread men. Nothing objectionable about any of it! Friends and acquaintances begin to arrive, wearing sweaters and sparkly earrings. All is festive. All is bright.

But then, something changes. Two guitars come out, and assorted percussion—a tambourine, an egg shaker, a stick of jingle bells. Guests grab homemade books of sheet music, smudging powdered sugar on the red-paper covers. Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. The lyrics are desperate. Suddenly, the party changes. Out of our mouths come not niceties, but declarations. Fall on your knees! Glory to the newborn King!

Everyone goes along with it, to varying degrees. Some sing loudly, barely glancing at the words. Others drink their hot wine and shuffle their feet. But nobody leaves in protest, in spite of the radical words we’re singing, their uncouth mentions of sin and salvation. One guest requests “Silent Night”—that is, if it isn’t too slow, she says. Jesus, Lord at thy birth! Someone else asks for “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Come adore on bended knee. A guest standing near her nods approvingly. “A classic,” he says.

We insult the Grinch, and wish each other “Feliz Navidad.” But we also say His law is love and His gospel is peace. We proclaim joy to the world, because the Lord has come. I wonder what our neighbors think. Probably not too much. This music is just in the air this time of year, flickering in the cold, like so many candles.

 

Songs solve nothing. I can’t say in good conscience that they’ll bring us together, despite all our differences.

On the radio, in commercials and stores, songs about angels, a virgin birth, and a Messiah play as if these were accepted phenomena. (They are not.) Even the season’s secular music presupposes a Prince of Peace, a God of Love. At least, there’s an assumption that we should be forgoing our usual enmity in favor of goodwill for all. War is over. Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile.

We bemoan the premature arrival of Christmas music. Can you believe they started up before Thanksgiving this year? It’s all commercialism. They just want to remind the kids that Santa’s coming to town. Nevertheless, the songs remain.

Why this strange—if begrudging acceptance—of a music so weird, so religious? The carols compare red holly berries with Christ’s blood. They talk of conquering death and breaking slaves’ chains. They brook no compromises.

He rules the world, with truth and grace! Born is the king of Israel! My public-school choir spent December skipping math and science to sing these pious phrases at nursing homes and elementary-school pajama parties. We sang in the cafeteria of the chainsaw factory where our conductor worked as a teenager. Under fluorescent lights, employees ate their sandwiches and drank cups of strong coffee while we asked what child it was who lay on Mary’s lap, sleeping. (And oh yes, we knew the answer!) One year, we went door-to-door in my family’s neighborhood, singing about our love for the little Lord Jesus in exchange for canned food. It’s not as if it were assumed that everyone’s a Christian in the part of the country where I grew up. Faith, if held, was often private and quiet, a little embarrassing. But my neighbors gave peas and beans and pineapple in syrup. One man wrote a $100 check. Another asked us to sing “Silent Night,” and cried. His wife was sick. This was music that made everyone feel good.

In college, the university Faculty Club hired choristers to sing during the holidays. We performed for tweed-jacketed professors and pearl-necked deans waiting to enter the dining room for supper. In the plush lobby near a gleaming tree and roaring fire, we told a fable about blessing the poor via the good King Wenceslas. For the scientists and scholars and enlightened dignitaries, we described old legends: a manger, a star, three wise men bearing gifts. The listeners applauded politely. When our shift was through, we descended to the basement for our supper of leftover prime rib and potatoes. Sometimes, we sang for the kitchen staff.

Christmas music is everywhere. How? Perhaps it’s lost all its meaning—we’re no longer listening to the words, we have no grasp of the stories they tell. Do you hear what I hear? Not really, no. This is mere cultural Christianity. Or simple nostalgia. Perhaps these exaltations, however inauthentic, shouldn’t even be allowed in a pluralistic society—a country whose residents, more than ever, have no religious affiliation at all.

And yet, I find myself moved by the carols’ ubiquity and constancy. They are one of the few things that has not changed in my lifetime, and especially in the last two years. They remain, dreaded or beloved, at the very least familiar.

Songs solve nothing. I can’t say in good conscience that they’ll bring us together, despite all our differences, or that they’ll return our country to some imaginary Christian past. Nothing so simple as that. These are moments, that’s all. A tune hummed beneath your breath. A lyric remembered, almost in spite of oneself. And perhaps, a few realities everyone can agree upon: need and death, pain and hope.

 

I’m a real believer, hiding in plain sight.

December 18. Christmas draws near. My husband and I set up—an amp, a music stand, a microphone—at the farmers market down the street. Vendors sell cinnamon twists and fluorescent persimmons and enormous bulbs of fennel. We tell folks to have themselves a merry little Christmas—a tearjerker, good for tips. We play “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman,” good for kids. Cherubim and seraphim throng the air. I sing words I would never speak in our liberal, sophisticated neighborhood. Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne for me, for you. Couples with designer dogs fill their baskets with apricot jelly and artisanal coffee beans, smiling our way. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The Babe, the Son of Mary.

A few women approach to tell us how glad they are that we are singing carols. “Jesus really did come,” one of them tells us, insistently. The compliments are nice—though I worry we’ve been unknowingly drafted into a culture war, misidentified with an insurgence. I’m also simply embarrassed. I don’t want to be dismissed as a Christian…even as I sing about Christ on a sidewalk. I’m a real believer, hiding in plain sight.

Katherine Lucky is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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