The Christmas Hit Parade

So like most people, my favorite Christmas carol is Little Drummer Boy. (Go ahead, ask your friends; it’s usually a tie between that and O Come All Ye Faithful, with a small but steadfast minority holding out for Joy to the World.)

I’ve become a big fan of Lindsey Stirling’s Little Drummer Boy but I love Bob Seger’s sweet rock version now and for all time.

You can also reduce me to rubble by getting a boy’s choir to sing Once in Royal David’s City. They hit that line “Jesus is our childhood pattern” and people in the next pew hand me tissues.

Still, we all have carols that aren’t our favorites but have lines or verses that stick out to us, y’know?

We Three Kings isn’t my favorite carol. In fact, as a child, its somber tone and minor chords used to scare me, along with In the Bleak Midwinter. I remember shrinking behind my mother in a church pew until she hauled me out from behind her with a “what on earth” look. The one just before you get taken out to the bathroom and corrected, so I quit. But those songs were just outright creepy as a kid.

Now, my favorite verse from a carol overall is in Kings. It might be verse three depending on your source, and it says Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice.

As children we have no idea how our lives are going to shape and form, but now as a trained folklorist I recognize in this line the echoes of Christianity co-opting and overcoming some very old gods with a small g. The Celtic bog bodies, the Easter deity sacrifices, all the echoes that Ecclesiastes 3:11 told us were there. (That’s the verse that says God put eternity in our hearts so someday like would call to like, in a paraphrased version.)

Christians can get really pissy about how symbolism is borrowed from pre-Christian belief, as if this were a bad thing, and pagans can get right pissy back about the moral high ground tone on the co-opting. But I admit this back-and-forth of old, new, and repurposed has always been one of the things I love about studying Christian theology: the power of the sacrifice the strength of the removal of sacrifices, the whole FULFILLMENT of a system, not its dismantling. The legend that when Jesus was born a yew tree cracked and a voice yelled down from the mountain, “The Great God Pan is dead” gave me chills. (He died in a battle; you can look up what GK Chesterton wrote about this if you’re interested.)

The joy of renewals, celebrating seasons, seeing patterns, enjoying the turning circle that turns through eternity: we were supposed to be eternally enjoying these things, and when that got messed up, a very ugly fulfillment was set in place to put us back in the circle. Christian Easter is a terrible, bloody holiday with a highly significant and glorious plot twist.

I think that is the coolest thing ever. Not many pagans and Christians want to dance together at Solstice, at Christmas, when the Day Star turns in our hearts as it does in the sky (that’s 2 Peter 1:19 plus a whole lot of pagan poetry) and the days get longer and we know resurrection takes many forms. Glorious now behold him arise, king and God and sacrifice, hallelujah, hallelujah, worship him God most high.

What’s your favorite carol this time of year?

A Thing I Look Forward to All Year

This Sunday will be the Epiphany service at the Methodist church the next town over. “Lessons and Carols” is a collection of just about every musician for three counties ’round packing out the big, beautiful, Norman-esque Norton church to do Christmas music. (No, the Normans didn’t reach Wise County in the Middle Ages, but some architects apparently sent missionaries.)

I look forward to this event–held the third Sunday in January–all year. Maybe it’s because it comes after the crush is over; most of the tinsel and glitter are out of the floorboard cracks; lawn decorations sit in boxes at the base of attic stairs. It’s January: cold, bleak, emotionally exhausted and financially drained January. We may as well sing together as face Winter alone.

And there’s just something about Christmas carols, when you don’t have to think about all the other stuff surrounding the holidays, that goes straight into your veins. When you can really hear them, their messages are exhilarating.

Musicians dust off sheet music and embrace hastily-cobbled partnerships–bluegrass trio, classical harpist, brass ensemble, unaccompanied folk singers and all. The music at Lessons and Carols doesn’t change much. Sometimes the strolling guitar team does Joy to the World instead of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The violin quartet moves between Handel and Mendelssohn.  There aren’t many surprises.

So few that, in the four years Jack and I have been singing at this event, I’ve developed trigger points. When our neighbor David–his wife Heather works at our store and he heads the college music department–leads his choir into Little Drummer Boy, no matter how I steel myself, I go to mush. The thrumming, sobbing, opening bass notes, followed by all those black-clad quiet voices in blended harmony, “Come, they told me….”

A little boy soprano always sings the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, before the congregation joins in. One pure small voice soaring through that high-ceilinged church, then everyone rumbling forward more-or-less together with “Jesus is our childhood pattern….”

I’ve learned to wear something with pockets and pack them with tissues.

Jack wonders why I like this event so much.  Musically,  it’s all over the place. It’s predictable, and long–now grown to two and a half hours PLUS prelude music. The benches are uncomfortable. We even do that hackneyed candle thing with the lights out.

Ah, but “come, they told me…..”