Ever since the night sky over Jerusalem served as the grandstands for a fantastical choir of angels two thousand years ago, music has been the grandest harbinger of the Advent season. Peace on earth, good will to all men and a host of heavenly jingles besides!
The music of the season has a special interest for me. I knew that I loved a beautiful college coed named Sandy Summerford while our college’s combined choirs were practicing for the annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah in December of 1982. Loved her enough, that is, to cut bait with another beautiful coed I had been dating: her roommate, no less, but that’s another story for another time (and if Sandy lets me tell it). Sometime between “hallelujahs” I discovered that she was the one for me and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I got the girl, as they say, and we are still going strong twenty-three years later.
Neither Sandy or I are much for carols of the season prior to, say, Thanksgiving, but once the dishes are cleared and the belts are loosened a notch (or two), it’s ‘katy-bar-the-door’ and let the music break forth in all its beauteous delight! Bring on the God Rest Ye’s and the Run Over Grandmas, the Silent Nights and Rudy, the Red-Nosed Reindeers (if you prefer Dean Martin’s rendition). Growing up, the “Muppet Christmas Carol” was a personal favorite, along with Glen Campbell’s “Little Toy Trains, Little Toy Tracks…”
Seems everybody has a Christmas album these days. Sandy and I even heard an interesting ‘carol’ by someone called the “Smashing Pumpkins” just yesterday (can you say, ‘mental anguish’?). Right about now, the Mitchells have the music of the season streaming from the Holiday channel on our Dish TV and piping in from ‘W-Whatever’ on our car stereos. Sandy’s been contentedly humming carols as she festoons our home with holiday mirth and we’re digging out our collection of CDs and loading the carousel in the entertainment system with even more hits of the holidays. Guess you can say the wife and I are suckers for glee and yuletide vocalizations.
All this talk of music makes one wonder about some of our most cherished carols and how they came to be. I am moved, for instance, by the story of what happened in a little house on Brook Street in London circa 1740. George Frederic Handel was a composer who had miserably failed. Swimming in debt, he set to writing what he thought would be his swan song. It quickly turned into an epic musical of God’s redemptive purposes known as “The Messiah.” For three weeks, Handel shut himself inside his room and would not partake in any food and very little sleep. After 24 days, he had written the last note on a 260-page manuscript and when his steward checked on him, found him sobbing in his room, face aglow. He said to the startled visitor, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself!” He later told a friend about his three-week experience, “Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I know not.”
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is not just a cute little song with silly lines. It was actually the “catechism in code” to teach children Bible truths when such things were banned in England while despots reigned there. The “partridge in a pear tree” is in reality, Jesus on the Cross. “Two turtledoves” were the Old and New Testaments and “four calling birds” were the gospels. “Five Golden rings” was the Pentateuch, “six geese a-laying” were the six days of creation, and so on.
And who can sing “Silent Night” without taking that plaintive walk with Pastor Josef Mohr in 1818? His church organ was broken and would not be fixed in time for the Christmas Eve service, so he took a walk to the top of a hill overlooking his sleepy Austrian village to take his burden to the Lord. As he viewed the snow-laden town below in its glorious silence, the Lord met with him and gave him the words to one of the most beloved hymns of the Advent season. The next day, an excited Mohr took his poem to his church organist, Franz Gruber, and asked him to come up with a melody that could be easily strummed on a guitar. The organist had only a few hours to fashion a singable melody, but by that night’s Christmas Eve service the matter was resolved, and the tiny congregation at The Church of St. Nicholas were the first of many to hear and love this peaceful and emotive carol.
There are many other stories but I leave that to you to uncover them. In the meantime, may God bless you and your family in this Advent season and may the music of these most holy days build a fire of warmth and peace at the hearth of your home.