“You’re Under Arrest for Christmas!”

  

My little nephew, whom I call Bacon, got a police uniform for Christmas. Now he says he’s a police officer. Apparently, this is a good thing, because he’d been a fireman for months, and my sister-in-law was getting tired of it.

So when we all got together for Christmas, Bacon strutted around in his police uniform, proudly declaring, “I’m a cop! You did a bad thing, so you get a ticket!” Then he’d give you a piece of sunflower stationary with a couple tally marks doodled on it.

I wound up with, like, five tickets for being a tickle-monster.

Later on, when his dad was in the bathroom, I pulled Bacon aside.

“You need to give Daddy a ticket,” I said.

Bacon got excited. “Yeah!” He said. “Why?”

So I whispered in his ear and told him exactly why.

When my brother got out of the bathroom, Bacon presented him with a ticket. “You did a bad thing, Daddy!”

“What did I do?” he said.

“You hit Uncle Stephen with a gun!” Bacon said. Which, you know, he totally did. Back when he was six years old. And I’ve never let him forget it.

I started laughing. Bryan started laughing. Bacon started laughing, too, although he had no idea why.

See, that’s the nice thing about staying close to your family: you have your whole life to come up with inside jokes.

A Gift for Christmas

  
So, yeah, sometimes you get that Christmas present that… I dunno, maybe you find underwhelming.

Like that T-shirt that you’re never going to wear.

Or a second copy of that movie your grandmother got in the discount bin at Best Buy.

Or yet another tie.

But, you know what?  The fact that someone thought enough of you to get you something?  Anything at all?  That’s pretty great.

Sing a Christmas Carol

I’ve been thinking a lot about Christmas music for the last… um… six months or so. I mean, I’m in a lot of choirs and stuff, so I rehearse Christmas music for most of the year. Many of the songs I wind up singing are pretty familiar – songs like “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Deck the Halls” – songs that we’ve all heard and sung so many times that we don’t really know or care what they’re about anymore. 

Many of these songs are old, using jargon and motifs that don’t really resonate with modern singers and listeners. Personally, I have never been on a sleigh ride. I don’t live near any old churches, so I don’t hear Christmas bells that often. Heck, I don’t really have any Christmas decorations out, because… well, why make more chores for myself, hm?

So why have these songs stuck around? What do these carols, that have so little in common with contemporary Christmas experiences, have that the songs sung by modern singers don’t have? I’ve been thinking about these songs for months, and I think I’ve come up with a plausible reason.

It’s sadness.

Most of the Christmas songs I’m familiar with come from my grandparents’ generation, the “greatest generation” that fought in the World Wars. As I sing these songs, I get the sense that a lot of that wartime uncertainty seeps in to the music of the holiday. Christmas becomes, in these carols, a terribly sad time.

Think about songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” sung by soldiers who knew that the only way they would be home for Christmas was in their dreams. Or how about “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which recognizes that our hope to be together for Christmas depends on how fickle the fates choose to be. Even “We Need a Little Christmas,” one of my least favorite songs, reminds us that:

“I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder,

Grown a little sadder, grown a little older,

And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder.

I need a little Christmas now.”

These songs are all about acknowledging just how awful the world is… but they don’t stop there. Each of these songs is all about taking a minute, just a tiny moment, to say, “In spite of all that, I choose to be happy, and I hope you can be happy, too.”

Even in the Biblical Christmas story, most of the carols tend to focus on the happy bit surrounding the Christ child’s birth, rather than the forthcoming tragedy of his crucifixion and death. Rather than revel in the violence and sadness of Jesus’s life, the songs are mostly about praise (“Gloria! In excelsis Deo!”) or comfort (“Sleep in heavenly peace”).

In the best Christmas music, I feel like there’s an active rejection of sadness – not a denial of the horrible things we all encounter, but a choice to embrace and celebrate the good things, for at least a little season. In the best Christmas celebrations, great efforts are taken to actively drive that sadness away. Gifts are exchanged between loved ones. Quarters are dropped into the buckets of Salvation Army volunteers. Radio stations hold fundraisers for the homeless shelters. “Secret Santas” leave gifts and food for those who go without. The underling problems of poverty and misery aren’t done away with, but they are repelled, if only for a moment.

So, yeah, here’s me, wishing you a happy Christmas time. Sing yourself a little Christmas carol, if you like, and, as you do, if you have the ability, try to spread that little bit of Christmas cheer by sharing what you have with someone who has not. And, yeah. God bless and all that. 

 

Caroling in Canlun

As part of our Guatemalan excursion, we drove off to some remote villages to sing Christmas carols in Kekchi to the local Christians, who didn’t have many (if any) Christmas songs in their language. One such excursion took us to Canlun, which, coming from my little world of white picket fences and Hot Pockets, completely staggered my imagination.

To reach Canlun, we drove through a countryside which… I wish I could find a better way to describe it than to say, “It looks like Jurassic Park,” but here we are. I come from a desert, so I tend to forget what the color green actually looks like until I go somewhere that gets more than a snow cone’s worth of precipitation a year. And the foliage is incredibly varied – greens of all shades, and shapes I didn’t even know plants came in. Squat palms, fat around the trunk and bushy in the branches. Tall, whispy trees than only look frail until you realize that they’re actually a mile or more away. And, of course, there are the coconut trees.I’ve seen houses like the ones in Canlun before, if only in photographs. Their yards are surrounded by thin fences bound together with twine or by walls of cultivated plants. The walls of the houses are, again, slats of wood tied together and roofed with leaves, and they’re terribly dark inside. Still, many of these places were actually fairly large (not terribly spacious, but not uncomfortably cramped, either). Some even had room for a coconut tree or two.

Part of our caroling group got sidetracked into conversation with this family, so I went back to retrieve them. As I walked up to them, the women of the house motioned for me to stay. They spoke to me in their heavily-accented Spanish, which… well, I don’t understand Spanish, anyway, so it doesn’t matter what their accent was. A member of my group pointed up into the tree, and I started when I realized that there was a man up there, cutting coconuts from their branches. He scurried back down while his daughters promptly loaded two of them into my arms.

After the family refused payment for the coconuts, thus reaffirming that I’ve been far too ungenerous in my life, we made our way back towards our singing engagement. One member of our little chorale struggled with carrying his two coconuts, his bag with his water, and the cane he had to use as he walked. I offered to carry his coconuts for him if he agreed to carry my music folder, which he did, gladly.

…and that’s how I wound up singing Silent Night whilst carrying four coconuts, which is not a thing I would have ever thought about putting on a bucket list.

  
*-Translated from Kekchi, of course.