Composing a Christmas carol amid the cold of winter


Dedicated to Jim and Wanda Gardner

Recently I thought about writing a Christmas carol in which I would say what Christmas means to me. As we know, for half a century the meaning of Christmas has been up for grabs.

Writing a carol is not an ego thing, mind you, nobody knows who wrote “Away in a Manger” and maybe not even “White Christmas.”

As preparation for my carol, I began jotting down everything that came to mind about Christmas. It’s the way some poets work — they write down ideas in prose and from that make the poem.

I never asked anyone if they had written a carol — maybe they’re writing one right now — and, if they are, I want to know what they’re saying about Christmas.

Christmas is no small thing. For many folks, it carries an emotional wallop with deep feelings tied to cutting down a tree in the woods, Midnight Mass, hot chocolate by a fire with Mel Tormé — the kids and grandkids always in the picture.

That prevailing view of Christmas reflects middle- and upper-middle-class sensibilities about a holiday that has nothing to do with the man it’s about. But they do reflect what a person thinks about happiness — and such thoughts are indeed deeply rooted. It’s an economic variable in the sense that the vision manifests itself in how the person lives day-to-day — micro and macro.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish my carol but I did start writing down thoughts that came to me. They are in no particular order or preference; maybe one will make the carol.

When I took mediation training years ago for helping divorced parents settle visitation rights — for example, where Mary and Abeer would spend Eid Al-Fitr — we were told, forewarned, that the parties would come emboldened with emotions attached to persons, places, and things, especially holidays with the kids.

We were told — and this is an exaggeration — that some would die before giving up Christmas. All I remember is: Mediator, beware.

What follows are data for my carol: the consciousness of a child of Christmas reflecting upon a self that was born one night amid the cold of winter.

1. There ought to be a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) that measures people’s attachment to holidays: the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas — and, if a person picks Christmas, he has to say what he thinks about Santa, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the manger, the mall, presents, devotion to a market economy, Christmas as addiction. Part 1(a) of the Inventory.

The Edward Pola/George Wyle carol proclaims Christmas as “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which Andy Williams lathered on America in 1963.

But I wondered: Who said Christmas is the most wonderful time of year? There were Christmases I didn’t have fun. Picking the first tomatoes of August outstrips any Christmas I knew. And Andy Williams never sang about the great “Dester’s Amish” tomato.

2. If you tell me your three favorite Christmas carols, I can tell not only what your view of Christmas is but the ethical foundations you live by. Part 1(b) of the Inventory starts: How do you rate December 26th, February 9th, and August 23rd?

Carols are Rorschach and lie-detector tests rolled in one.

3. Take the carol “Angels We Have Heard on High.” One of the lines goes, “Come, adore on bended knee.” I sang that line a million times as a kid but later began to ask what it meant to “adore” someone, especially on “bended knee.”

The carol says the recipient of the knee is: Christ the Lord, the newborn King. (Christmas carol as catechism.)

I wondered what it’d be like to have a “Lord” or “King” in my life upsetting my happiness-quotient (HQ), telling me what cereal to eat, where I can go to the bathroom, and whether I have a doctor when I’m sick — proselytizing like an infidel.

And — for the grammatically-gifted — Kings and Lords never use the subjunctive.

4. People have no sense of how much they give away when they rate Frosty and Pa rum pum pum pum over the founder of the holiday. It not only reveals the inner life of the person but the extent to which his faith requires him to help others — with time, money, attitude, sweat — and, on a macro level, to stand for policies that allow everyone to share in America’s bounty. It’s a radical definition of family.

5. The best Christmas carol I ever sang is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” from the centuries-old German: “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” a hymn worlds apart from “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells Rock,” and blue Elvis.

6. Years ago I sang in a choir and, when Christmas rolled around, “Lo, How a Rose” topped our repertoire; we sang it in four parts the way the Mormon Tabernacle Choir does today.

Our choir did a lot of chant, four-part hymns, and once we sang a six-part Mass by Palestrina with harmonies as close as Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

7. “Lo, How a Rose” is about a woman who gives birth to a child in a manger in a stable — a story every Christian child knows by heart. The hymn shines light on her ancestral tree especially on a savior who will come “Amid the cold of winter.” And will live and die that way — amid the cold of winter.

8. Musically “Lo, How a Rose” is in 4/4 time with the opening “Lo” getting two beats — a kind of “hear ye hear ye.” I think the Mormon Tabernacle Choir jumps the gun on the count or maybe the singers slip into “how” too soon. Listen for yourself.

Here are the words of “Lo”:

Verse One

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung!

Of Jesse’s lineage coming

As men of old have sung.

It came, a flower bright,

Amid the cold of winter

When half-gone was the night.

Verse Two

Isaiah ’twas foretold it,

The Rose I have in mind:

With Mary we behold it,

The virgin mother kind.

To show God’s love aright

She bore to men a Savior

When half-gone was the night.

Verse Three

This Flower, whose fragrance tender

With sweetness fills the air,

Dispels with glorious splendor

The darkness everywhere.

True man, yet very God,

From sin and death He saves us

And lightens every load.

So much depends on a boy who will lighten the load of everyone. If that song were a vacuum cleaner I’d have bought it years ago to get the cat hair off my rug — but I must admit I did buy it ... and the cat hair is still on the rug.

Author’s editorial note: That is what I jotted down in my Christmas carol free-for-all. I hope you have one.

To all who celebrate the joyous light a winter night affords when things grow small, I wish you well, and freedom from the torment of what’s closed us down — we live amid the cold of winter.

In the old westerns, they used to shout: The cavalry’s coming! The cavalry’s coming! But the cavalry’s already here: in all those faces sweating behind a plastic shield to save the life of a soul who refused to wear a mask; in the kid who delivers pizza to the door; and in the guy at the Customer Service desk who still treats you like a person.

To all of you, you frontline workers, I kneel down in adoration, especially those who hear Pa rum pum pum pum the way Jesus played it.

Twenty-Twenty’s been a long long winter. Feliz Navidad, a toda mi familia. Feliz Navidad.

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