O Come, O Come Emmanuel

christmas-1010749_1280by Meg Currell

I grew up Catholic. My South Side Chicago Irish mother had an uncle AND a brother who were priests, so family gatherings were especially holy. My Uncle John, the priest, once said Mass for us privately, in our home. I watched, amazed, as he took out his vestments and Mass supplies from his regular old suitcase. Shouldn’t they be in a tabernacle or something? A vault?

Catholicism for me wasn’t just a Sunday thing.
I went to parochial school, with the black-watch-plaid jumper and crisp white shirt with a Peter Pan collar. I absorbed the ritual of the Church with fervor; the incense, candle-lighting, First Friday Mass and the absolution of being chosen the bearer of the Gifts. It was as close as this young girl would ever get to being an altar boy or (my true wish) a priest.

The music at church was the beginning of my musical life. My mother skipped all the post-Vatican II guitar-music “crap”, instead singing all the traditional songs in her glorious voice. She drew stares that made me embarrassed; I didn’t want anybody looking at us for any reason. But the music breathed into m; it was the connective tissue that held all Catholics together in their joy and fear and wonder at God’s creation. I would come home on Sundays and pick out on the piano the songs we’d just sung. My mother got me in piano lessons right away.

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Christmas was a time of particular musical glory. The methodical ticking off of days during Advent urged us toward the Big Day with even greater anticipation than Santa, who was an ancillary figure in my early childhood. The real deal was baby Jesus and getting ready for his awesome birthday celebration in the Church. The sanctuary and the priest were festooned in Advent purple, the parish Christmas tree decorated with ornaments made by my classmates and me, Jacob’s ladders and construction paper Coats of Many Colors, the sacred tulle frothing our anticipation of the appearance of baby Jesus. A wooden crèche with its empty manger stood at the side of the altar, handmade by the father of one of my classmates, each figure a sculpture lovingly shaped by the hands of an appliance repairman.

The church rang with the haunting music of waiting, the sound of the entire Church aching for the arrival of the Savior. Advent music moves at the pace of a slow trudge through the desert, riding a donkey, thirsty and cold and looking for shelter. Much of the music reveres Mary, as she prepares to become the Mother of God; Ave Maria, Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming. My mother, who believed that singing is praying twice, would sing in her spinning soprano, eyes closed, lost, I suspect, in memory and longing not for the Christ child, but for her own child self singing songs in Latin now lost in the post-Vatican II purge.

Of the songs of reverent longing, O Come, O Come Emmanuel was the most sacred and haunting. A voice crying out for relief for a people lost. I had a vague understanding that it referred to the Jewish people lost in the desert, but as a child I knew only that we as a people were waiting for Emmanuel, and that singing would draw Him closer. With its minor key and antiphonic sway, it felt close to my mother’s Latin Mass music, the Gregorian chant that echoed through monasteries as the monks and friars walked through their daily duties, which involved gardening and cleaning and coloring in pages of sacred text.

Just like those men of God, we sang and prayed twice for the coming of this Savior.

nativity-scene-212550_1920One year, my priest-Uncle John took me—and only me—to Midnight Mass. I was the youngest child, the protected baby of the family, and allowing me to stay up so late was an honor. That I was attending church with a priest, a real man of God, made me feel holy, as if his study and devotion were conferred upon me just because I was around him. We sat near the front, down the left aisle, near the Christmas tree. As darkness fell and candles were lit, I knelt next to this priest, the “inside man” who had a key to the mysteries of the Church that was my mother’s sustaining breath. Four weeks’ anticipation of Advent collected in the cold air of the church, heavy with incense and aftershave and a fresh spritz of perfume, the one present opened before coming to Mass.

And we sang, my priest-Uncle’s wobbly tenor glossing over notes and words I knew by heart. He wasn’t the singer my mother was, but I could stand in for her, my 10 or 12 year old self only now exploring my singing voice. We sang the songs to call Christ near to us, to let Him know we were ready for Him to bestow His grace upon us for another year. “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captives,” we captives, we who spent the whole year trapped in our humanness and frailty, but four weeks before Christmas, we got our acts together and look! We’re ready now!

jesus-910271_1920At the stroke of midnight, we were allowed to sing the glorias announcing the birth. Joy to the World! Go Tell it on the Mountain! Hark the Herald Angels Sing!

But that exultation was hollow for me, less invigorating than the longing that marked His approach. We would all go back to normal now, to “ordinary” time in the Church, to music meant to beat us into compliance, not for elevating our thoughts God-ward. No music for the rest of the year would come as close to touching God as Advent music, none as full of the purpose of calling Him close to us. On Christmas, that purpose was discarded like crumpled wrapping paper, an empty box to be reused next year.

I am now a faithless, Godless heathen in my adulthood, having left the Church and then Christianity and then belief in God in progressive stages. But the effort of straining God-ward left in me a sense memory, like swinging a baseball bat or jumping off a raft: I can still feel it, even if I don’t do it anymore. The strings of Advent-music melodies pull me back into the place of longing, o come, o come Emmanuel, disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Once again, I want to sing to draw Christ near, if only for one dark sparkling night. 

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O Come, O Come Emmanuel

June Christy

Hang Them on the Tree

By Kedrick Rue

this-time-of-yearTalking my atheist parents into buying a Christmas tree was an endeavor that seemed doomed from the start. We didn’t celebrate this most commercial of holidays that the “hoi polloi gushed so foolishly about”–my mother’s exact words—not with carols, not with presents, not with cookies.

It was all utter foolishness.

The Canyon in which I grew up was an unusual place, and within that place, we were an unusual family. For the most part we were a typical Eisenhower-era family, dragged into the late ’60s. My father wore button-down shirts and a sport coat to work every day. My mother was a housewife active in the PTA. She made my breakfast every morning, packed my lunch, and drove me to school. But they had been closet Communists at a time when it was the most dangerous thing to be, and were devout atheists in a country steeped in baby boomer Protestantism.

The Canyon wasn’t Christian; it was Pagan. There were the satyrs: horny old goats with connections to the record industry. There were the sylphs: groupies and junkies—often both—with long hair and flowing clothes. Every post-puberty man imagined himself as a Jim Morrison-style Dionysus, and every night was a bacchanal set to fuzzed out electric guitar, tablas, and harmonium.

june-christyBut this was in the other houses. At our house, things had stalled out in 1961. Though my parents were tolerant of the general canyon culture, even as it became more and more hedonistic, they were never friends with most of our neighbors. We would loan them a cup of sugar or flour; we even once babysat a dog for a whole week. But my parents would never leave me with them; the one time this happened the girl they had hired to babysit ended up dancing naked in our living room after she thought I was asleep. Though dancing naked was okay in pagan rituals, it was not okay in a babysitting context. Still, my mother preferred the Pagan to the Christian.

But neither moved her when it came to getting a Christmas tree.

Her fatal mistake came through a choice of friends. My father was in a branch of the Industry, and was friends with a lot of the people in the Industry. I only met June Christy once, when I was about five. I remember her as being funny and beautiful, with a mischievous sense of humor. Because I only met her once, I thought that out of all my parents’ friends she was the most intriguing.

A few years later, when lobbying for a Christmas tree, I searched my house high and low for incriminating evidence that my parents, deep in their hearts, harbored that little twinkle of Christmas that the “hoi polloi gushed so foolishly about” every December. The one crumb I was able to find was this album. And because June was a friend, I was allowed to listen to it.

the-little-red-henThe fortress had been breached. I was next able to convince my mother to make cookies (oatmeal raisin, a most un-Christmas-like cookie, as if even my mother’s baking were bearing a grudge against rampant consumerism and shallow religiosity). Then I was able to get her to buy me a gift—the Little Golden Book version of The Little Red Hen, because she liked its socialist message. Finally, I convinced her to bring a tree in from the back yard—a scrub pine I decorated with paper chains.

For that one year, I was satisfied in believing that we were just like everyone else.

I want to say that my mother’s heart grew three sizes that day. But instead she moved around the house like a caged thing, confined by the trappings of popular culture which had invaded our home. I still remember that tree as the bitterest of victories. And I also learned that there was very little—not a carol, not a cookie, not a tree—that could make us just like everyone else.

My mother stuck with the Canyon for the rest of her life, and she never fit in. But she wouldn’t have fit in anywhere. When she died I realized I could have resented her for imposing her way of life on me, but somehow I never did. Somehow I appreciated this perspective of difference, even through the bleakest years of high school.

As I was clearing out her things I found June Christy’s album. I listened to the song again for the first time in nearly two decades.

I’ll take the sorrows of last November
Make them a part of Christmas Day
Color them shiny, bright and gay
And hang them on the tree…

I still don’t have a tree in my house at Christmas—except for that one disastrous year when I dated a Pagan, which resulted in a number of broken hand-fired ornaments and a backyard bonfire—but I do have June’s song. It helps me to put the year, and the life behind me, in perspective.

June Christy

Stan Beard & the Swinging Strings

Snowbows

By Lara Shelton

When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? I also believed that I could be a circus veterinarian who doubled as an acrobat when the regular acrobats occasionally broke their legs. Oh, and a singer/songwriter, selling out packed houses and doing the Mike Douglas show in my spare time. I sang about my cat, my dog, my bedspread, how much I loved pancakes. Somehow my songs, though carefully recorded on a Fisher Price cassette tape recorder, never made it onto the radio.

song-poem-1If you haven’t ever heard of MSR there’s a good reason. The acronym comes from one of the biggest labels dealing in “song-poems”, a loose, semi-professional recording scheme popular in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, whereby patent amateurs would submit their song lyrics to a company, along with a fee, and a few weeks later be presented with a recording made by “professional” “studio” “musicians.” I hope the liberal use of quotation marks will not be overlooked.

Some of the musicians working in the shadow industry of song-poems had skill, even talent. Rodd Keith is revered in certain circles. Teri Summers stands out as a vocalist who could imbue even the most hackneyed sliver of a lyric with an air of gravitas. But where the real frisson occurs in these songs, what gives them their unique savor, is usually the collision between the relative amateurishness of the lyrics and the relative slickness of the musical productions. Listen to Snowbows, below. (It’s mistakenly titled Snowballs, I know. But such a mistake is entirely in keeping with the spirit of MSR.

The rhythm track is scattershot, at best, the electric piano solo meandering. But Stan Beard could have given Pat Boone a run for his money, and the melody is as lovely as anything the Carpenters ever put out.

song-poem-3When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? it’s a ridiculous concept by any stretch of the imagination. Or is it? Now that I’m an adult I still believe in concepts like Democracy. I believe in World Peace. I still believe in True Love, despite the evidence to the contrary.

What I mean to say is nothing that hasn’t been said before: we are dead without a dream. And what better dream than the one that a couple of lines, scratched out on the back of a cocktail napkin and recorded by “professional” “studio” “musicians,” can rocket you to immortality?

By nearly all metrics, Snowbows is a terrible, terrible song. And yet when I listen to it, I begin to dream. I dream of the lyricist, who may very well still be alive, keeping the 45 rpm vinyl in a special place in a heavy oaken sideboard of early ’70s manufacture, and getting it out once a year to listen to it in solitude. And listening to it unironically, as I do. And the snow begins to fall, and there is the sound of hooves on the rooftop, and for a moment everything works the way we always wanted it to. Then the record ends, and we put it away for another year.

Everything you ever wanted to know about song-poems on Wikipedia.

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Stan Beard & the Swinging Strings