People are noting on Facebook their favorite carols. Favorite holiday movies. That sort of thing. And yes, I’d like you to go to the comments below and list one or two of your favorites, before reading on…. Please?
Oddly, the word “carol” is widely misunderstood. It has come to mean a song of religious devotion or worship in the prase Christmas carol. Thus, there are many holiday or Christmas songs that are not “carols,” per se: songs like “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting…”) , or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The two best-selling Christmas records are not carols, technically: “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby was the biggest selling physical record; and the biggest sales for a digital song? (Wait for it…): Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Carey’s love song is quite a far cry from wanting peace and good will for all people, right? But it’s not as bad as a few others I will not name…
I prefer the more Christ-centered carols. I grew up with a Christmas nut Mom, and we all became more or less Christmas nuts. The nut does not fall far from the tree, as they say. And by that, one signal is a certain nuttiness about the music of the season, including old classics by Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, or Judy Garland. So no disrespect to the likes of Johnny Mathis or Whitney Houston or Perry Como or even Burl Ives, crooning away in the background.
But as for the truly worshipful tunes: I recall singing with my new bride, at our wedding reception, a candlelight version of “O Holy Night.” We wed the week before Christmas, and I played along on my guitar. It was such a moment of beauty in my life, one of those spots of time that I recall as about the best Christmas carol event ever. And my Mom was standing right there, beside us. Unforgettable.
As far as the sheer poetry of famous carols, it’s hard to beat the words of the Rev. Phillips Brooks, just after the American Civil War, not long after he had done a horseback tour from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and held a midnight service there on Christmas Eve, 1865: the year the Civil War ended. Here’s the first stanza:
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
When and if you listen to this one later today or over the weekend, give some thought to that amazing final lines: “The hopes and fears of all the years.” The mystery and amazement of the little baby, wrapped in the swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, is that met in Him was all that: “The hopes and fears of all the years.” How can this be??
Hopes, yes. Christmas is the time for new hope. As bad as this very bad year 2020 has been, I am sensing a tiny bit of HOPE, as I talk to family and friends. Some are really struggling, to be honest. Then there is the political mess that we are all witnessing, and about which I have nothing to add on this sacred day. But along with the Covid situation, it adds to the mix, provoking in many of us, genuine fears. All that–and more–is “met in thee tonight.”
I’ll cut to the chase with two thoughts: one is, HOPE overcomes and destroys fear. If hope and fear are met, we know which one triumphs.
One final thought: listen to the words as they come out of the TV, stereo, computer, and/or the voices of your singing family and friends. A true Christmas carol –the BEST carols — also inspire hope within us. The streets are dark, the stars are silent; and
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light”
And yet. Don’t forget that “yet.” So much depends upon that tiny word. It springs forward to one of the greatest and simplest lines in the Holy Bible:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)