I don’t pretend to understand the economics of commercial radio. (I do get public radio: they beg for money periodically — much like Jesuits — and so effectively that even with a vow of poverty, I’ll toss a few dollars to my local station.) Somehow radio stations make money by devoting the entire month of December (or even longer) to playing Christmas music at us — and in the spirit of full disclosure, I suppose I should admit that we here at TJP jumped on the bandwagon with our Christmas playlist running since Thanksgiving as well.
Even though I groan when I have to listen to pop stars singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” the day after Thanksgiving, there’s actually something quite hopeful about the fact that whether it’s called Advent or not, our culture — the whole thing, from Santas in malls to the tree in Rockefeller center — joins together in the anticipation of Christmas.
But in church, we wait for Christmas music until December 25th, when possibly every English-speaking church service began with “O Come All Ye Faithful” and ended with “Joy to the World,” and for one brief day, sacred and secular music were aligned, and what you heard in church was what you heard on the radio.
For one day only.
Come December 26th, the radio stations are playing Justin Bieber and Rihanna again, and “Call Me Maybe” still refuses to go gentle into that good night. But, liturgically speaking, it’s still Christmas, a season absolutely packed with feasts and celebrations — New Year’s Day is the Octave of Christmas, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, and we’re going to keep singing Christmas carols straight through to Epiphany.
One response to the endless run-up and instant abandonment of Christmas music on the radio is to join the ranks of the war on the war on Christmas, and decry a culture that has abandoned the religious meaning of the holiday. But we’ve all seen where that leads.
Here’s a different read: our culture is still capable of anticipation in common — but we’re not so good at celebration. We know how to wait for Christmas with eager longing, and we start doing it on Thanksgiving (we’re already counting down for this year’s Macy’s parade). The decorations go up, the music on the radio starts — but as soon as we reach the long-awaited day, we’re done. We move immediately to the post-Christmas sales on wrapping paper.
Our liturgical life — the real “twelve days of Christmas,” and not just the TJP take on them — reminds us that we were waiting for something — for someone — and now it’s time to celebrate, and celebrate, and celebrate: thoroughly, and at length.
So in this new year, let me be the first to say “Merry Christmas!”
And let me make up for the fact that our Christmas playlist stopped on December 25th by making a quick recommendation for what I’ve been listening to for the past eight days: Sufjan Stevens’s Silver and Gold: five volumes of Christmas music from the indie singer-songwriter (a sequel to this earlier five volume set). You can sample all the tracks at this link. I’ve been a Sufjan fan for a while, so I picked this up fairly quickly — but only after a “first listen” courtesy of (what else?) NPR.
Sufjan’s music can be an acquired taste, and the Christmas songs are no exception to that rule. Some of these songs are a bit overdone; some are downright weird. But in among them are some pieces that go a good ways toward redeeming Christmas music. I’ll let NPR’s review try to convince you:
But of all the descriptions that apply to Silver & Gold, the one that fits best is that it’s deeply felt. By definition, you don’t release Christmas music five discs at a time if you don’t mean it, or if you’re just phoning it in for a quick buck. Sufjan Stevens goes all in for his favorite season, and his reward is beautiful and bonkers, and a work of wonder.
Put another way: this is music that actually means to celebrate Christmas — not just to countdown to the 25th of December on the radio. And some of it is just plain glorious: