“It doesn’t really feel like Christmas, Dad.”
My daughter tugs sharply at my shirt to get my attention, and gestures dramatically down our street.
She’s right. This Christmas is different.
For her, it feels different because, after living the entirety of her eight years of life in downtown Philadelphia, we moved several months ago to Palm Beach, Florida. We’re not ice-skating this year. The Christmas lights we’re admiring on our walk aren’t strung across snow-encrusted rowhomes, but wound around palm trees. There’s a house down the street from us that has a giant inflatable Santa Claus riding a speedboat in their front yard.
But her offhand comment strikes me because I know so many people who feel the same way, for more dire reasons. December 25 will arrive this year to a world still very much in the grip of a global pandemic.
At the time of this writing, more than 320,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. That’s a lot of families who will have an empty seat around the table when they gather this year. Many others will spend this Christmas alone. Others will spend the holidays with one eye on a growing stack of bills, wondering how they’ll make it through a fraught economic season. For an awful lot of people, this is not a hap-happy time of year.
As I mused on this a few days ago, I pulled a volume of short fiction from the shelf in my study and re-read a favorite Christmas story — John Updike’s The Carol Sing.
In his moving little first-person piece, Updike’s narrator describes a Christmas-time carol sing in his fictitious hometown of Tarbox. He stands near the back of the Town Hall as old-timers and newcomers crowd together to belt out holiday tunes and sip spiked cinnamon-stick punch. He looks around the room, notices Wendell Huddlestone, Mamie Nevins, the pretty young couple who just moved in — and, he scans chairs that are empty now, vacated by friends long gone.
The story finishes with the narrator wondering: “Why do we [sing these Christmas songs]? Come every year sure as the solstice to carol these antiquities that if you listened to the words would break your heart. Silence, darkness, Jesus, angels. Better, I suppose, to sing than to listen.”
This is actually just what I need. For the Christmas good news to break my heart open. For the “good news of great joy” to shine light into the shrouded darkness so many of us feel. For the Christmas mysteries to move us, re-make us, lift us.
I’ve experienced Christmas hymnody, belted out in Updike’s fictitious carol sing, as a particular gift this year — even if many of us won’t sing Christmas songs in a sanctuary crammed with candlelit worshippers this year.
If your Christmas feels different, if your December is not exactly hap-happy, I’d invite you to listen to some of the antiquities that carol the Christmas Gospel:
Savior of the nations, come,
virgin’s Son, make here thy home!
Marvel now, of heav’n and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.
-Ambrose of Milan, “Savior of the Nations, Come” (4th cent.)
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.
-Liturgy of St. James, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (4th cent.)
Salvation is created
In the midst of the earth.
O God, Alleluia.
-Pavel Tchesnokov, “Salvation is Created” (1912)
This is what Luke’s moving account of Jesus’ birth, and John’s soaring prologue, and the haunting beauty of the old Christmas songs offer to all of us in a decidedly un-Christmasy December of disruption and gloom: