On our walk this morning Trav and I found a Christmas tree. “Leave it,” I told Trav, who was eyeing it with tug-of-war on his mind. “It’s mine.” I picked it up and brought it home.
My first thought was that this pine branch had fallen from a nearby tree in the high winds we’ve had lately, but no: at its base was a clean cut. What was it doing lying beside the path?
Damned if I know. What I do know is that Christmas has been following me around this year. I haven’t celebrated Christmas in many years, though I revel in lights and lose no opportunity to sing. (See “Winter Concert,” my most recent blog post, for an example.)
It started late Sunday morning, when DJ Dave Palmater cued up “Chariots” near the end of the Acoustic Sunrise show on WUMB-FM. It was love at first hearing — no, it was more like obsession at first hearing. “Chariots” is a modern carol written by John Kirkpatrick in English traditional style. The rollicking version I heard was from Kirkpatrick et al.’s album Wassail!, but it took me an hour or so to find and download it (thank you, CD Universe).
It only took about 60 seconds to find a live performance on YouTube by Nowell Sing We Clear, an awesome quartet that includes John Roberts and Tony Barrand. With that playing on my laptop, I found and downloaded NSWC’s recording of the song and another Roberts-Barrand album, Live at Holstein’s, because buying just one song seemed awfully chintzy. (A couple of hours later I went back and bought two NSWC albums. Thank you, CD Baby.)
Here’s a link to the live Nowell Sing We Clear video:
Now you can share my earworm. Seriously, how can you resist a carol that makes you dance and sing and that includes lyrics like these?
And the shoes of the mighty shall dance to new measures
And the jackboots of generals shall jangle no more
As sister and brother and father and mother
Agree with each other the end to all war
You can find the rest of the lyrics here.
I’ve been wallowing in English traditional Christmas music ever since. Why do I love it? Tunes you can dance to, lyrics you haven’t heard a thousand times before, and — maybe most important — the voices of people who sound like they’re having a blast. And, as I posted on Facebook yesterday: “Wonderful how many of these rollicking old English carols had to do with beer, booze, food, and merriment. No wonder the Puritans tried to ban Christmas. Waes hail!”
To which one person responded: “That’s exactly why!”
I’m not a Christian. I was raised a churchgoing Episcopalian, but it didn’t take. Once I aged out of the junior choir and got confirmed (“conformed,” as I thought it was, till someone pointed out the error in something I wrote for “conformation class”), I stopped going to church. The more I learned about Christian history and the history of other monotheistic and/or patriarchal religions, the more disgusted I got.
At the same time — well, I was a huge admirer of the Berrigan brothers, and of all my antiwar colleagues who were moved to protest and resist by their various forms of Christianity. The civil rights movement taught me that there was more to Christianity than popes, priests, and patriarchs. Over the years I’ve been inspired by so many women, some famous, many not, who’ve fought to be included in their Christian, Jewish, or Muslim traditions, and have expanded those traditions in the process.
These days some believe there’s a “War on Christmas.” They feel dissed if someone wishes them “Happy holidays,” and say “Merry Christmas” as if they’re laying down a gauntlet. To my mind, whatever war there is on Christmas has been going on for decades and was launched not by “secular humanists” but by commercial interests that continuously urge us to buy buy buy stuff, stuff, and more stuff and join in a mechanical dance that involves dutiful, often joyless meeting, eating, giving and getting presents, and listening to the same old carols over and over and over.
All of which was swept away by hearing “Chariots” on Sunday morning.
With chariots of cherubim chanting
And seraphim singing hosanna
And a choir of archangels a-caroling come
Singing Hallelujah, Hallelu
All the angels a-trumpeting glory
In praise of the Prince of Peace
Whether you believe the story or not, the song celebrates hope and a vision worth celebrating, not least because it’s not the trademarked property of any one religion or ideology. And the celebration is contagious. You can’t dig in your heels when you’re dancing. Or argue when you’re singing.
Maybe 35 years ago I had another epiphany brought on by a song. The radio had come on; I was awake, but I hadn’t gotten out of bed yet. And out of the radio came Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance,” magnificently sung by John Langstaff and the Revels chorus.
Well! The song’s imagery is Christian, but I heard behind it the older story, of the god who’s born, grows through the year, and dies in winter, only to rise again in the spring. I got it at last: Jesus as a avatar of the much older god whose death brings hope to the world. In that moment I made my peace with Christianity. I stopped identifying it exclusively with its worst elements and started acknowledging that its best — many of which I’d encountered by then, and many more of which I’ve encountered since — weren’t aberrations.
If you don’t know “Lord of the Dance,” or haven’t heard it recently, here it is, sung by the late John Langstaff and joined to an exuberantly appropriate video:
After 10 days of temps above freezing and several days of temps in the 50s (!!), winter is back. The ice disks have come again. We had a little nativity scene on the deck this morning.