The best Easter service I ever attended was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was not really a service at all, but a song fest, or sing-along in an Episcopal church. About 200 people belted out hymns for a little less than an hour. No ritual. No program. No sermon.
My favorite Christmas service is “Lessons and Carols” — easy on the lessons, heavy on the carols. And that service should never have a homily, which would only diminish it.
Many years ago, at St. John’s Church in West Hartford, Conn., I heard a version of what I still think is the most poignant of all Christmas songs — one that I have never forgotten. The tune is by the great English classical composer Gustav Holst, who most people associate with “The Planets.” It is really a folk melody. The text is by Christina Rossetti and was first published in 1872 in Scribner’s Monthly, under the title, “A Christmas Carol.”
You will quickly recognize the words of the first verse, and the tune will come instantly into your head:
“In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
The final verse is almost as familiar:
“What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.”
Light decorations for the Lights Before Christmas at the Toledo Zoo in Toledo on Tuesday.
What makes the poem perfect is simplicity of word and image, matched by directness of emotion. The music, which came years later, matches the poem in these qualities.
But, though direct, the emotion is not excessive or exploitive, unlike so much popular Christmas music.
Some people think that Christmas is all about sentimentality. Actually, it is about the senses — awakening all four of them — at a time of year when they tend to shut down. But the senses of sight and sound are predominant.
In my family, the celebration of sight, and light, includes the flickering light of film. We try to work our way through all the beloved Christmas movies — from It’s a Wonderful Life,” to White Christmas, to A Christmas Story. For one week we don’t have to worry about whether Frank Capra or Bing Crosby really wasn’t a very nice man. Art carries the day.
Perhaps a decade or so past, I developed a fascination with the yearly display of Christmas lights in residential neighborhoods — good burghers become artists and their homes and yards their palettes. I would scope out the best Christmas light exhibitions in town, and, often on Christmas Eve, treat our kids to a curated driving tour of the best.
In the realm of Christmas lighting of course, unlike poetry and carols, restraint and understatement is not the wise course. The more light and color the better. The more over the top, the more cheering. This year my wife and I took her mother, age 90, on the tour. I think we were all more delighted than our children were when they were 10, 6, and 2.
I think it would be very hard to feel Christmas-y in L.A. or on a beach in Malibu.
Christmas light needs the chill and the bleakness.
It’s not a Christmas poem, but the most wonderful poem of winter and winter light I know is one I have only recently discovered: “Silver,” by Walter de la Mare:
“Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in silver feathered sleep
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.”
Christmas brings more silver to our nights.
It’s all about light, isn’t it? The star that lit the manger and the way.
It’s all about the light we generate with goodwill toward men, and women, and children, and animals, and Mother Earth herself.
And the hope we amass against whatever darkness we are battling — despair, loneliness, joblessness, alienation, treachery, disappointment, the daily headlines.
Albert Schweitzer said: “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
Give tomorrow. Give light, and receive it.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
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