Christmas is a holiday full of music. Centuries before Mariah Carey’s ever-present “All I Want for Christmas” or Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” songs were being written and sung and danced to, all celebrating the birth of Jesus.
The word “carol” comes from the French word 'carole' or the Latin 'carula', which seems to have been a ‘ring dance’ or ‘circle dance’ – literally, a dance form where everyone moves in a circle accompanied by music or song. So many of our hymns like “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” and “What Child Is This” originally included dancing: think of them as those centuries’ “Macarena” or “Electric Slide.”
Like a fun wedding, people would be dragged out onto the dance floor even though they protested that dancing wasn’t their thing, and everyone would join together in celebrating Christmas.
Our current hymnal at First Church has 40 Christmas hymns, all for the 12 days between Advent and Epiphany. To put that in perspective, the same hymnal has 19 hymns in the Easter section, for a liturgical season that lasts 50 days. While you might want to blame the consumer commercialization of Christmas for the huge quantities of holiday music, remember that most of our beloved carols come from before 1850. I think part of the diversity in carols comes from their function: different cultures have different dance styles, and you need one of your own local songs to fit your dance.
Christmas is also a time for some of the silliest music. “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” or “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” are some of the older classics. But there are old Christmas carols that are just as silly. “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” puts Mary and Jesus on a boat sailing into a harbor on Christmas morning. [Bethlehem is about 50 miles from the Mediterranean Sea.] “Away in a Manger” says that newborn baby Jesus “no crying did make,” which is highly unlikely. In “Ding! Dong! Merrily On High,” we sing “And i-o, i-o,i-o”, which always makes me laugh for its ridiculousness.
For generations, carols have been sung in the First Church sanctuary, the lights turned low and the smell of fresh evergreen ever-present, worshipers adorned in their holiday sweaters of red and green or a tasteful Christmas brooch pinned to a festive blouse.
This year, (for those who RSVP) some will briefly huddle with coats on in a December sanctuary with windows open, liturgy and music all shortened and muted by masks, everything sanitized and contactless. Others will worship at home through a Christmas Eve worship video sent out as we do on Sundays. It will stand in opposition to the original intent of Christmas carols – hey, let’s grab hands and dance around inside, making merry in spite of the “bleak midwinter” and “frosty wind made moan” outside. How will we make a good Christmas when carols can’t be sung together by congregation or choir?
I encourage each of you to find ways to celebrate Christmas with music, in defiance of this virus. The Christian theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote “Christianity is not reconciliation with death. . . If Christ is life, [then] Christianity proclaims death to be abnormal . . . to accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery is the fall of Christianity.” We need not accept this social isolation as “what we need to do.”
We can loudly proclaim this abnormal way of existence as what it is – horrible – and find ways to defy it, while still wearing masks and caring for each other by socially distancing. First of all, still find ways to smile at the silliness of it all. Think of how much sillier Christmas will be this year: if there’s any question of our belief that Jesus is God’s love incarnate, our testimony will be the ways we have found ways to continue to celebrate.
Pilgrim Fellowship had a ‘drive-by Santa greeting’ this year, which clearly wasn’t as fun as the usual Santa Breakfast, but was a way to defy this epidemic with honking and waving. Perhaps at home, you can find a way to dance to some Christmas music: it won’t be as fun as singing together, but even a little shuffle step in the kitchen to “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is a way to be Christian, and say that “goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness,” especially in this Christmas of 2020.
Find ways not only to mourn what we can’t do this year, but ways to bring music back into your Christmas life on a daily basis: sing, dance, tap a foot along. In this world, more music than normal, more acts of kindness, more ways to share joy is what we are called to do as Christians defying the despair.
Bill Speed, Director of Music Ministries