catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 21 :: 2004.12.17 — 2004.12.30


All I ever get for Christmas is blue

Returning from spending time with my family over Thanksgiving, I had to take a shuttle bus from my hometown to an airport several hours away. Our driver, bless his heart, took it upon himself to provide us with some entertainment for journey. The tinny speakers over each seat blared holly-jolly tunes?an inordinate number of them belted out by Vanessa Williams?on one of those all-Christmas-all-the-time radio stations, complete with obnoxious disc jockeys. Those two hours on the road were awful?roughly equivalent, I decided, to being trapped in a dentist?s office in one of the circles of hell.

I have several friends who would not have felt the same way. They are fanatics about what is considered by many Americans to be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. These friends start blasting carols right around Halloween, which, I’m sorry, I’ve just never understood. Growing up, my siblings and I were allowed to put on Handel’s Messiah

(which doesn’t even really count as a Christmas composition) the day after Thanksgiving, and I never developed a need to get started any sooner, if at all.
Call me a scrooge, but I actually possess very little innate holiday spirit, particularly when it comes to the seasonal soundtrack. I don?t think of myself as a joyless grinch, though?I love celebrating festively when the occasion calls for it (in fact, I?m attending a party tonight that will involve both eggnog and Will Ferrell?s Elf), and I love singing carols in church during Advent?the really sad, mournful ones.

I suppose that?s what gets to me about a lot of the music that?s played during the weeks leading up to Christmas: it?s psychotically cheerful in a way that, to me, rings insincere. When the songs that even we Christians listen to during this time mostly consist of schlocky sentimentalizing about reindeer and hot cocoa, is it any wonder that people don?t seem to understand the much-touted ?true meaning of Christmas??
Maybe it?s just my naturally melancholy disposition, but I?m drawn to Christmas music that laments before it rejoices, or that at least acknowledges the serious spirit of Advent. In this season, we who worship the Son of God are still a people in darkness, awaiting the arrival of our Great Light. And at times?as in much of the Christian life?this can be painful, uncomfortable, distressing. A wonderful writer named Molly Marsh (who I am also glad to call my friend) put it this way in an Advent reflection that appeared in Sojourners magazine a few years ago:

[M]inutes, months, or years tick by. At times we beat the dark air; at others we live buoyed by a kindness, perhaps, or an unexplained calmness, or a string of good luck. And when we’re tired of being alone, of living in this dimly lit place, we look around to see who or what else is out there. Pieces of a story surface and we remember that there was a moment in history that God chose to come to us, in a form we could easily recognize, a baby with skin, eyes, hair, and a mouth, who grew into a man who sometimes got fed up with the people around him, many of whom he loved, a man who also suffered and felt utterly abandoned, all the while being loved by God.

The Gospel, as Frederick Buechner has written, ?is bad news before it is good news.? Bad news: snow covers the ground, the trees in our backyards are bare and dead, the earth is sleeping. Good news: we have it on faith and trust alone that the snow will melt and that they will, in time, awake and bloom with life again. The Christmas music I cherish the most evokes these seasonal transformations. It pleads ?O Come, O Come, Emmanuel? before shouting ?Joy to the World.?
Sometimes this kind of music is difficult to come by, given the crass Santa-tainment that characterizes our North American celebrations and renders even classic carols as glitzy production numbers. But over the years, I?ve amassed a small but dependable collection of songs that make up my own December soundtrack. If you?re seeking a similar sonic backdrop?one both lamenting and lighthearted?here are some places to start:

  • First and foremost, Over the Rhine’s brooding, sad-sack Darkest Night of the Year, which evidently caused an acquaintance to wonder, “So, do they like Christmas?” A valid question?this album is full of traditional carols and original compositions that, according to the album commentary, ?find it impossible to remember Bethlehem without remembering Gethsemani; for real joy is always tinged with sadness.? This band is one of the very best at capturing that truth in soundscape, whether songstress Karin Bergquist is crooning a hymn (?Silent Night?) or a smoldering torch number (?All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue,? not available on this collection but frequently performed live).

  • The Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas album (and lo, the accompanying television special), whose shuffling snare drum and inexpert children?s choir remind us that a scrawny, neglected Christmas tree can be transformed into something magnificently beautiful when it is loved.

  • Three years? worth of seasonal offerings by a banjo-strumming, scout-uniforming-wearing, faith-and-arts-articulating, all-around-fascinating fellow named Sufjan Stevens. Ranging from the sublime (?Lo How a Rose E?er Booming?) to the ridiculously quirky (?Come On! Let?s Boogey to the Elf Dance!?), these recordings are available only online. Sufjan evidently made them as gifts for friends and family, but they’ve been distributed on the web with his knowledge. (I won?t provide a link here to avoid stressing the bandwidth of the source I?m familiar with, but if you contact me I will be happy to.)

Maybe some of these songs are a little bit gloomy, along the lines of the ghoulish street band in Tim Burton?s Nightmare Before Christmas that can?t help but turn a cheerful rendition of ?Jingle Bells? into a dirge. But I prefer them to the glossy sentimentality of most of the commercial music that drives the holiday season. This kind of music isn?t bah-humbug?in many ways, it is simply more honest. It waits for God?s arrival with delicious anticipation but accepts that it must, in fact, wait. It dwells in the dimly lit vestibule of Advent before the door is flung wide to the festive banquet hall of the Word made flesh. It is the sonic embodiment of Molly?s vivid description of these seasons in our lives, which concluded her reflection and with which I will conclude mine:

We’ve been sitting on the front stoop of an unlit house, blinking into the darkness, waiting, or so we thought. What were we waiting for? Fear and anger have kept us from remembering. Oh yes, we were expecting God. We’re not sure how we missed this, but suddenly we know God’s already been by. The night air is electric, the faint sound of a familiar music plays, somewhere a door has been set open; the moment is pregnant with possibility. God is near.

Kate Bowman is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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