Posts Tagged ‘carols’

As a lover of Christmas (and twinkle lights), I have a soft spot for December. It usually feels both hectic and peaceful: holiday celebrations and travel prep and last-minute gifts alongside the hush of quiet evenings and diamond-bright, blue-sky mornings.

This year, of course, December feels different: I’m not packing for Texas, not finishing up a semester of full-time work, not going to Advent services or planning to sing carols in church on Christmas Eve. I am trying to wrap my head around a low-key, cozy, local Christmas. But I am still observing a few tiny rituals of the season, and I thought I’d share them with you. They include:

Stringing twinkle lights on a Christmas tree – I put mine up last weekend, well behind the pandemic-inspired holiday rush but with plenty of time to enjoy it before Christmas.

Lighting the good candles, as often as I want.

Pulling out a few cherished mementoes, like the metal mailbox with a little moose on it and the words “Merry Kiss Moose” in red letters. And the coat-hanger tree I’ve had since junior high, which still – miraculously – works, at least for now.

Listening to The Holiday soundtrack while I clean or cook or write. And watching the movie itself, which is a perennial fave.

Addressing Christmas cards and wondering whether I need to buy more stamps. (Related: texting friends to ask for snail-mail addresses.)

Pulling out my now-worn Advent book and flipping to my favorite essays.

Seeing those plush reindeer antlers and noses on cars around town, which always make me smile.

Revisiting Shepherds Abiding, a tale of Mitford at Christmastime that charms me and chokes me up every. single. year.

Searching out stocking stuffers (this time, for my guy).

Looking up at birds’ nests in bare tree branches.

Snapping photos of holiday decorations around town.

Humming the carols I love, and pulling out a few favorite albums: Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong, James Taylor’s At Christmas, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.

Following along with Ali Edwards’ December Daily stories, even though I’m not making a scrapbook myself.

Pulling out the fleece-lined tights and handknit accessories.

Remembering Christmases past: red felt stockings on the mantel at Mimi’s, candles in the sanctuary at my parents’ church, the words of Luke 2 from Mom’s worn old Bible, Christmas-morning shenanigans with my nephews.

What are your tiny December rituals?


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Last year, one of the joys of December in Eastie was participating in a local Christmas carol choir, spearheaded by my friend Peter and often hosted by him and his wife, Giordana. (That’s their dining room table, above, complete with pencils for marking and herbal tea for scratchy throats.)

We are all keeping our distance this year, of course, but I think Peter (and some of us) could not bear to do nothing, so we’re cobbling together a pandemic-safe carol service. We’re holding rehearsals on Zoom and planning to record ourselves singing the individual parts, to be mixed together and then released as a full (amateur) recording.

I thought it might feel sad, or inadequate: like so many things, this practice is a shadow of what it was pre-pandemic. We can’t gather in anyone’s living room, or sing together in real time; instead, we all mute ourselves and sing along with recordings on YouTube, sharing the sheet music on our computer screens (with lots of attendant technical glitches).

It is messy and imperfect and sometimes hilarious, and the recordings are hit or miss, frankly. But it’s still nourishing to see everyone’s faces, and wave hello and sing together, even if it doesn’t look at all “normal.” I am learning a few songs I didn’t know, and revisiting cherished favorites, like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “O Holy Night.”

These songs have layers of associations for me, long years of singing them with family or friends or church communities, all the way up to Christmas Eve. For me, the music and the community are both vital to marking the season. So despite the tech issues and the funky recordings and the wish that we could all be together, these rehearsals – virtual though they may be – are a real source of light and warmth and laughter.

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Singing the season.

One essential part of the holiday season for me is the music.

I know I’m not alone in this: you can hardly walk into a store in December without hearing tinny remixes of classic carols or Mariah Carey belting out “All I Want for Christmas is You.” (I confess to a certain affection for Mariah, mostly because my sister loves that song. She and her college housemates used to slide in their socks down the hallway, singing it at the tops of their lungs.)

I have been steeped in the familiar carols all my life: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and others. We always began Advent services at Brookline with “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I know multiple verses of so many carols (including that one) by heart.

Every year, I remember the long-ago rendition of “O Holy Night” sung by two of my dad’s friends at our church in Dallas: a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. At least once each December, I wake up humming “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and think of George, who patiently led our church youth choir through it again and again. I have favorite versions of “Go Tell it On the Mountain” (James Taylor) and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (Ella). And I wait all year for the chance to sing anything involving a Gloria.

This year, thanks to some local friends, I joined a carol choir in my neighborhood. We’ve been meeting on Thursday and Sunday nights since early November, gathering at a nearby church or in Peter and Giordana’s dining room. The music we’re singing is an eclectic mix of well-known classics (“The First Noel” and “Adeste Fideles”), slightly lesser-known carols (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “The Friendly Beasts”), and several pieces I’d never heard of, including one in Latin and one in Spanish.

I’d forgotten how much fun it is to sing with a choir, to hammer out melodies and harmonies one note at a time until it starts to sound something like music. I’ve loved standing between Melanie and Ann-Marie, all of us sipping herbal tea from Giordana’s collection of mugs, as we stumble our way through “Puer Nobis Nascitur” or “A la Nanita Nana.” I’ve been amazed at Anna’s soaring soprano descants and sense of humor, and deeply appreciated Gillian’s handy pitch pipe and her wry, sharp musical commentary. And Peter, who steers this ship every year, has brought us through the last few weeks with skill and grace.

I’ve been humming these tunes as I walk from the train to my office or putter around the apartment, making tea or washing dishes. I’ve also been playing the King’s College Cambridge carols album on repeat, and I went over to the glorious Harvard carol service last week, and sang my heart out standing next to someone I love.

I had wondered if, this year, the music of the season would sound like loss: the loss of several communities where I used to sing. But I am happy to report that the songs are still there, and so is the community. It just looks different. This year, it looks like Elsa’s sweet smile and Rudi’s quiet warmth. It sounds like Joe’s jokes from the back row and Jessica’s able piano playing. It feels like Steve and Chrissy giving rides and making people welcome. It looks like Xeroxed sheet music, and it sounds like joy.

This is not a gift I ever expected, but it is one I’m happy to savor. (And, of course, Mariah is still sneaking in there too, sometimes.)

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tiny christmas tree bookshelf

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair, I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth, I said
For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

After the headlines of the last few weeks, this carol is resonating more deeply than ever.

I’m taking a few days off to celebrate Christmas with my family. Wishing you peace and joy in this season, friends.

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I love the Christmas music, y’all. I grew up in a family where Elvis’ Blue Christmas and Vince Guaraldi’s piano music and even Kenny G’s holiday album were integral parts of every December. My mom adores “O Come All Ye Faithful” and my dad has a soft spot for “Silent Night.” And my sister can actually hit the high note at the end of Mariah Carey’s version of “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

This year, more than ever, I find myself impatient with the poppy, overproduced music blaring out of store speakers and car stereos. But the old, thoughtful, joyous carols, the ones that turn our hearts toward peace and anticipation, are more deeply ingrained in my heart than ever.

It’s so hard to choose favorites, because I truly love all the classics – but here are a few I return to again and again:

1. O Come O Come Emmanuel. As I grow to love Advent more and more, I adore this haunting hymn with its many names for Christ and its soaring melody. (The Civil Wars have a lovely rendition.) We sing it every week at our church during Advent, and I find myself praying: yes. Come.
2. O Holy Night. There’s mystery and magic and power in this song. It gives me chills. (And when I was a little girl, two of my dad’s best friends sang this as a duet during a Christmas church service. I can still hear Buddy’s rich baritone melding with Clay’s soaring tenor.)
3. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. I love the lyrics to this one, infused with hope and angel song, and the lilting, haunting melody. (I particularly like Ella’s rendition.)
4. In the Bleak Midwinter. This is a relatively new favorite – I discovered it in college, when I sang it at a choir Christmas concert – but I love it. So thoughtful and quiet and yet hopeful.
5. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Mostly for the lyrics in the third and fourth verses: “No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin / Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” And “We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell / O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

Of course, I love  “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” (see above), and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “What Child is This” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and (recently) “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” (We’ve been singing that one in Ryan and Amy’s living room on Sunday nights lately.)

On the secular side, I enjoy  “Sleigh Ride” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Chestnuts Roasting.” I always hear the Peanuts characters singing “Christmastime is Here” and Bert and Ernie (or Judy Garland) singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And no holiday season is complete without Elvis having a blue Christmas, or George Strait singing about the new kid in town, or my dad singing the old Jim Reeves song, “C is for the Christ Child.” But this handful of quiet, haunting melodies is what’s playing over and over again this year.

What Christmas songs do you love?

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(Sacred Heart Parish, down the street from us – and our first New England snow)

“That first day, the day you arrived, you and I sat in the church and talked about Christmas and the Winter Solstice. […] I remembered having exactly the same conversation with [my daughter Francesca] a year or so ago. Trying to explain about the Christmas star and the scientists’ theory of time. And she listened but was not convinced. She didn’t want to be convinced. She liked the story just as it was.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.

That was the way she wanted Christmas to be, and for Francesca it wouldn’t have been magic any other way. Because the carols and the darkness and the presents were all part of a time when life took flight, and the whole world soared to the stars.”

-Rosamunde Pilcher, Winter Solstice

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Christmas music

I arrived in Midland on Friday afternoon to find, to my surprise, that my family’s collection of Christmas music has suddenly doubled. Perhaps tripled. For so many years we have listened to the same three cassettes – Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas, Kenny G’s Miracles: The Holiday Album and George Strait’s Merry Christmas Strait to You – during the whole Christmas season. We start with them when we decorate the tree and they reappear periodically until about New Year’s.

But this year we have a veritable smorgasbord of Christmas tunes. Mom bought the new Alan Jackson Christmas album – wonderful, smooth renditions of some of my favourite Christmas carols, and a lovely new song called “Let It Be Christmas.” There’s the James Taylor Christmas album I bought for Dad last year (ultra-mellow), and the new Josh Groban release, Noel (rich and wonderful), that Jeremiah let me open this week. There’s a lovely piano carols album Mom picked up somewhere, and a husband-and-wife duo called the Machens who sing beautifully, and the Mariah Carey Christmas album (my sister does a mean karaoke rendition of “All I Want for Christmas is You”). With the result that our five-CD stereo is perennially full of various versions of Christmas music, all proclaiming joyfully that it is that time of year.

I adore carols of every stripe, so much so that I know all the obscure lyrics nobody else knows, like the third and fourth verses to “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the words to “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus” and all the verses to classics like “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” I’ve realised again this year that there’s some great theology in some of our old favourites, such as the second verse to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:

Christ, by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time, behold Him come
Offspring of a virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

This is the Christmas story in a nutshell. Eternal God, come down to dwell with man, born of a virgin, the Word incarnate. Pleased to dwell with us, because He loves us, and be God-with-us – Emmanuel.

Merry Christmas to all my blogosphere friends. May you enjoy hugs from family, that special gift you wanted, cups of your favourite hot drink around the fire, and music that inspires joy and wonder. Christ is here; He has come to dwell with us. Because He loves us. He loves you. Merry, merry Christmas.

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O Come O Come Emmanuel

It is officially Advent, the time when the church turns its thoughts and collective longing toward Christmas. From the decorations and plethora of shop-window adverts in City Centre, it’s obvious the marketplace has already turned its longing toward the spending season – but I’m talking about a much deeper yearning.

“O Come O Come Emmanuel” is one of my favourite Christmas carols, and it’s been popping up everywhere this week…at the Sheldonian carol service on Wednesday, then again at church this morning. We are longing for the Messiah to come. In some ways we are simply play-acting every year, knowing that He has already come. But in another way, our longing is real: we are waiting for the day when, as J.B. Phillips says, “even in the midst of what appears to us confusion and incompleteness, Christ will come again.”

Like most people, I’ve got a great deal to do in the next 23 days. I am preparing for one of my twice-weekly jaunts to Canterbury Road as I type this, and there are two books to read, an essay and a proposal to finish, cards to write, gifts to wrap, tasks to do for Ron tomorrow, Christmas choir rehearsals, emails to answer and dozens of people to love on. Several different clocks are ticking, and I’m plagued by the feeling that one of them is going to go off and catch me off guard.

But for the next 23 days I’m also going to try to sit quietly and listen to the words of the song. He has come – He is coming – He will come again. Please come, Lord Jesus. Come be Emmanuel, God-with-us, again.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

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bleak midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
A breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him? Give my heart.

This carol has been on my mind for the past two days. We sang it last December in our Christmas concert, and its quiet, haunting melody has stayed with me. The words were written by Christina Rossetti, one of my favourite poets, in 1872 as a response to a Scribner’s Magazine request for a Christmas poem. They were later set to the tune “Cranham” by Gustav Holst, whose “First Suite in E Flat” was one of my favourite pieces from my high school band days. (We played it in London when we went for the millenium, and there are some beautiful, soaring flute parts.) So even its origins have special meaning for me.

It is bleak midwinter today in Abilene – and about to get bleaker, when a frosty cold front blows through tonight. But it’s also coming on Christmas – December starts Friday, Advent begins Sunday, and the Christmas shopping season has already begun. I love, love, love popular Christmas music – both church songs and fun holiday ditties like Rudolph and Frosty and “Winter Wonderland.” But there are also a few obscure songs that have worked their way into my heart over the years, and this is one of them. You can hear an instrumental recording on its Cyberhymnal page here. Enjoy, and merry pre-Christmas.

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