1. The local “Christmas station” plays a sometimes-delightful, often appalling mix of cheesy ’80s pop stars (think Hall & Oates “Jingle Bell Rock”), some great Mannheim Steamroller, and several versions of Feliz Navidad and Chestnuts Roasting—but virtually ZERO religious content. This got me thinking about the kids at school. When we would plan our Christmas Mass, and I’d ask them to pick songs, they kept having trouble coming up with sacred songs. Their brains defaulted to “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” Why is that, I ask myself? Last year I taught Alex “Away in a Manger,” but this year he’s all about “Rudolph” (see #2) and “Jingle Bells.” Upon further reflection, I came to the conclusion that these songs are easy to learn because they don’t require deep thought to understand, and they’re short. The truly great sacred carols are dense in theology, and the language requires plumbing the depths (see #7).
2. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Alex has been learning this for his school concert, and after singing the intro a dozen times for him, it suddenly occurred to me: You know (fill in the blank x 8…) —But DO YOU KNOW the most FAMOUS reindeer of all?????
(Uh…as a matter of fact, no, I knew the eight nobody ever heard of except in a little poem, but I never heard of the famous one, the one that has his own TV special!)
3. Joy to the World. (Liturgy geek alert!) Look through the words to this hymn. What do you NOT see included? Hint: Angels, babies, shepherds, or Magi. This is actually a hymn for the feast of Christ the King. I think this is why it is my favorite Christmas carol of all time. And if it wasn’t so fundamentally tied to Christmas, it would be a spectacular hymn for ten or twelve different Sundays throughout the liturgical year.
4. White Christmas. Every child knows it’s supposed to be snowy at Christmas. But living in Missouri, I have, at length and at last, bowed to the inevitable: white Christmases are few and far between. It’s just not in the climate where I live. In fact, it’s been two years since we had a white anything here. You know that big blizzard that buried the entire middle of the country this week? We got…a dusting. About enough to look like a weak frost. Why is that Christmas and snow have become synonymous? After more reflection, I realized it is because the traditions of American Christmas came from New England, and in New England, y’all do get snow at Christmas. And every other part of the winter.
5. Last year I arranged “I Heard the Bells” for our contemporary group. This was my introduction to the name Johnny Marks. Chances are, you haven’t heard the name either—but it turns out that this Jewish man, who earned a Bronze Star in World War II, wrote a ton of those easy carols that kids learn. He wrote practically the whole score for Rudolph, including Rudolph, A Holly Jolly Christmas, and Silver and Gold, plus Run Rudolph Run, one setting of I Heard the Bells and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.
6. Did you know that there are at least three different tunes for Away in a Manger, and that in the UK, they use a different tune for It Came Upon a Midnight Clear? (This I discovered in looking for choral links for #7.)
7. I used to get annoyed by the archaic language in Christmas carols. At what other time of year would we consent to sing the word “hark”? Especially with an exclamation point after it? You’d get laughed at! But a month post 9/11, I was working on the music schedule for the Christmas season at church, and I actually read the words to “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” and I dissolved into tears. Go read them. Listen to them. And see if it doesn’t strike to the heart of life on Earth…then, now, and forevermore.