Christmas has a tendency to collect things, even things that don’t exactly go together. We celebrate the birth of a child in the Levant with christened winter traditions from Germany and Victorian morality fables. A 1990s pop songstress follows on a French carol. And even the phrases on my lips this time of year are a collection of nationalities. The “merry” in Merry Christmas was ditched for “Happy” in the U.K. in order to clean up its association with “merriment” — drinking booze and, one presumes, warming each other up. But I learned to say “Happy Christmas” from a young age to my godmother in London. I don’t say Boxing Day though. My odd references to just “Stephen’s Day” are where the Irish side comes out. My wife’s paternal Slovak side comes to the fore when the blessed oblatki hits the tables on Christmas Eve, waiting for a daub of honey.
Actually, this is my favorite thing about the Christmas season: that it seems to submit everything — our do-gooding, our naughtiness, our high aspirations, and our national traditions — at the feet of a newborn child. This baby created the world, and look at what twinkling, gaudy, fresh, and chilling things we filled it with.
So in that spirit, it seems fitting to share at least a little bit of what fills my Christmases.
For most of us, the music is what’s front and center. For my friends, I know that the 1960s and the Phil Spector–produced Christmas album are front and center. And those songs are like a scent memory for me too. For others, it is the big modern pop and rock Christmas compilations that you’d hear if you, like me, worked a mall job during winter breaks. Somehow I developed a taste for the objectively uninteresting rendition of “Last Christmas” by Jimmy Eat World. I have a green translucent 45 RPM with that pressed on it. For some reason. I also have the tunes my mother inflicted on me. The 1991 album The Bells of Dublin by The Chieftans stands out. I like their team-up with Elvis Costello on “St. Stephen’s Day Murders.” But the album is a wonderful, strange collection. The other Irish thing I love is The Pogues’s Fairytale of New York, which I praised at length in a column five years ago.
But at home, I associate Christmas with the crooners. Christmas is jazz adjacent: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and especially Nat King Cole, whose Christmas compilations are my favorite. My mother liked the modern crooners, particularly Harry Connick Jr., and his albums are now part of the soundscape of my happy memories. Connick Jr. led me toward a more New Orleans and Dixie sound for Christmas. So now perhaps my favorite Christmas album is Christmas Cactus by the Bad Cactus Brass Band. A gem and not the easiest to find. For some reason, as a teenager, I also fell in love with the a cappella gospel-jazz group Take 6. One of their more traditional takes is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
My favorite hymn of the season is “O Holy Night,” though I can’t point to one performance of it that moves me the most. At the parish church I attend, a pastor there once insisted on having Franz Biebl’s arrangement of “Ave Maria” sung. My friend Steve Sojek alerted me to a new composition by Mark Nowakowski, which sets a Christmas poem written by G. K. Chesterton to music. This year, NR’s own Madeleine Kearns gave us the gift of her own original song “Christmas in St. George Square.”
Movies too. Listeners to The Editors know that Charlie Cooke and I, both born in the 1980s, love Mickey’s Christmas Carol, a wonderfully compact and beautifully animated retelling of the Dickens classic. I actually find the Ghost of Christmas Future in this, his threat of a grave leading to the fires of hell, quite terrifying and edifying — which is the same thing for bad Christians. Home Alone and Elf also get into the rotation on our television. My wife likes to curl up with The Holiday, which I think is the low-key chick-flick champion of the holidays. It’s not the plot, which is a romantic-comedic trifle, but the set design, costuming, and lighting. The whole film exudes this kind of easy warmth, and the characters that start out miserable and stressed eventually settle into the environment that is so expensively created for them, allowing that warmth to be the setting for romance. I think in some way it mirrors the stress felt at the holiday and the potential for letting it go.
I return to scraps of literature each year as well. Our home’s Jesse Tree tradition brings certain scripture passages to mind. But I make a point every year of turning to G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man to reread its haunting essay “The God in the Cave” and its marvelous passage about the threat of King Herod:
Unless we understand the presence of that enemy, we shall not only miss the point of Christianity, but even miss the point of Christmas. Christmas for us in Christendom has become one thing, and in one sense even a simple thing. But like all the truths of that tradition, it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and of drama. It is not only an occasion for the peacemakers any more than for the merry makers; it is not only a Hindu peace conference any more than it is only a Scandinavian winter feast. There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only bangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapor from the exultant, explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savor is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace. By the very nature of the story the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaws den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicing in a dug-out. It is not only true that such a subterranean chamber was a hiding-place from enemies; and that the enemies were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky. It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace.
But if Christmas is a simple thing in Christendom, the other piece of literature I remember most is A Christmas Childhood, by my favorite poet, Patrick Kavanagh. Kavanagh grew up in “the stony grey soil” of Monaghan, a country boy who never quite fit into Dublin’s literary scene. Here it is in full:
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.