At The Onion’s serious and actually fantastic pop-culture branch, A.V. Club, Libby Hill has a beautiful essay discussing why she thinks Sufjan Stevens makes the perfect Christmas music for nonbelievers:
My parents’ house has two Christmas trees. One is the show tree. It’s color coordinated and lit in white lights. It stands in the front window, and the presents that lay under it are meticulously matched to its color scheme. The other is kept in the family room. It’s a mishmash of colored lights and ornaments, some handmade from more than 40 years ago, tattered construction paper and yarn. Some were stocking stuffers from ages past, plastic figures of NBA stars dunking on translucent backgrounds.
When my siblings and I get old enough, my mother boxes up a few ornaments, generally ones made for us or ones we crafted ourselves, and sends them from the place that had been home to the place we now call home. I decorate my tree with them. I make the recipes my family has always made. I wrap the presents just the way my mother taught me. I go to Christmas Eve service, but I do not believe in God. I’m just there for the music. The music is enough.
For many, the holidays become a careful blend of what has always been done with the new contours of your life as it is now. The trick involves somehow honoring who you were without undermining who you turned out to be. This is rarely an easy line to walk.
She goes on:
It is difficult to believe in something that espouses certainty in an uncertain world, something that suggests faith as a panacea to doubt. It is difficult to face a holiday season built around the beliefs of a life you’ve left behind, but Sufjan Stevens’ album Songs For Christmas makes all these things much easier to navigate.Even though it consists of five separate EPs, Songs For Christmas is unassuming. Recorded over five years, the collection focuses most of its two-hour runtime on a mixture of new Christmas compositions and religious standbys that would be at home in any Protestant hymnal, all filtered through Stevens’ instrumentally eclectic, painfully sincere style. The result is a collection of songs that is both innocuous enough for your mom and acoustically varied enough for the typical music aficionado. But for individuals raised in the church who matured into something else entirely, Stevens’ songs invoke a nostalgia for a person you never turned out to be.
There’s a stark, chilly beauty when listening to Songs For Christmas as a lapsed Christian. It’s that sense of not being a Christian, but listening to a Christian, who nonetheless makes his money not singing about Jesus, now singing songs about Jesus and reminding you of the small points of light that existed, even for you, even for me, in the darkness of faith. It’s being wistful for something you never loved and recognizing that it’s still a part of your history. It’s being nostalgic for a you that never was.You might have made peace with her absence, but a part of you will always remember waiting for her to arrive, and hoping you’d find her by hovering just long enough in the space between a minor key and the word “Rejoice,” to allow angels to slip in.
To celebrate Christmas, I’ve put together a list of my favorite Sufjan Stevens Christmas songs, introduced by Kishi Baschi’s nostalgic carol “It’s Christmas, But It’s Not White in our Town.” It felt appropriate, since it’s currently raining in Durham, NC.
A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I found an old vinyl record of The Nutcracker Suite at a thrift store for 25 cents, and we’ve been playing it in the background since. Small touches, particularly with music, can add a lot of depth and meaning to the holidays, even for nonbelievers. Please share any favorite Sufjan tracks I missed (he’s currently released 10 EP’s full of Christmas music, so it’s easy to miss some gems), as well as any other Christmas staples that bring you some warmth and nostalgia.
Merry Christmas from NonProphet Status.