Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas…

My visit at the dentist ended with the receptionist turning to her coworker and proclaiming, “What’s with this music! (speaking of the muzak that permeates the background of workspaces throughout America)  Where is the Christmas music? We need Christmas music!” I concurred but with the caveat, “Just as long as every third song is not Mariah Carey singing, ‘All I Want for Christmas is You.’”  We all chuckled.

During the Christmas season I used to grumble about the ubiquitous Christmas/holiday music that wafts through malls, retail establishments, shopping centers and offices.  I complained often and loudly about the secularization of the most sacred of holidays. I would decry the commercialization and the materialization that overshadows the reason for the celebration.  In short, at this time of year I turned into the greenest, stinkiest, grumpiest Grinch ever.

I held up such melodies that flooded the culture and diluted the truth of the glorious news of Christ the Savior’s birth as evidence of my disdain for what Christmas had become.  “Seriously,” I would grumble, “does ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ really define the season? From the silly, ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,’ to the profane and sarcastic, ‘So, This is Christmas,’ such holiday offerings do nothing but detract from the message and distract attention from the One who's coming defines the course of history.  No, they simply transform a most holy-day into merely another popular holiday that now lags behind in popularity to Hallowe’en, yet another example of the secularization of Western Civilization!”

I am certain you are getting a glimpse into the grouchy demeanor that defined my persona during this, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

Then, my pastor turned my attitude around.  One Sunday he pointed out how Christ’s name is honored by the carols sung and played in the background during the Christmas shopping season.  He commented that those who never darken the door of a church even once or twice a year are infused with the message of Christmas while they engage in commercial activities.  “O, Little town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manger,” “Hark, the Herald Angels,” “Noel” and so many other carols serve to drive home, even subconsciously, to shoppers, party goers and even patrons of local dives, the message of redemption and salvation.  Even secular recording artists and well-known atheists, pagans and reprobates, including Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Ariana Grande or Lady Gaga, put out Christmas albums and sing praises to the very God they reject and Whose existence they vehemently deny.  Even such ditties as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and nostalgic classics such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that never include the story of the incarnation or focus overtly on the birth of Christ still serve to proclaim that precious event. The very inclusion of the word, Christmas, in secular holiday songs does, indeed, declare that this season is punctuated by that most momentous event.  It is forever commemorated as Christ’s Mass, the festival honoring Jesus’ birth.

So, while enjoying the unending flow of Christmas music streamed through various Sirius stations on my truck radio, my wife, Tabby, asked, “My favorite Christmas carol is ‘Silent Night.’  What is yours?” No one song immediately came to mind, but I did begin to sort through the copious list of possibilities. Days later I narrowed my choices to two that do address my concern of the secularization and trivialization of the season’s deeply profound proclamation by the heavenly host to persons of no social standing on a dark, lonely and silent night so long ago.  

Although himself a member of a denomination that denied the Trinity and the incarnation, the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, expressed in “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” his belief in the goodness of the Almighty.  Written for a Unitarian Sunday school class in 1864 Wadsworth chose to counter the bitterness and disillusion brought on by the cruelties and ravages of the Civil War with hope in God’s watchfulness. Wadsworth’s words ring evermore true in light of the cultural civil war that threatens to shred the fabric of the United States.  The domination of secularism seems to be irreversible. It seems that “wrong is prevailing, and right is failing.” Yet, Wadsworth’s lyrics remind Christians, such as I, that God is sovereign:

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play

And mild and sweet their songs repeat

Of peace on earth good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head

There is no peace on earth I said

For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men

Then rang the bells more loud and deep

God is not dead, nor doth He sleep

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men

Likewise, my second on the list of favorite carols proclaims the hope we Christians have in the future and second coming of the once Babe in a manger, but now King of glory.  A melancholy, almost mournful tune accompanies the lyrics from the time in history in which Israel, exiled and enslaved, pleaded with God to right wrongs and to deliver His people from bondage.  Christians traditionally sing this hymn as part of a series during Advent in a musical form known as an antiphon. Each antiphon greets the coming Messiah during the season leading to Nativity by one of His eternal titles.  This particular antiphon honors Jesus as “God with Us.”

Even as we Christians recognize the bondage of sin and death that still grips the hearts of people and reigns over our culture, we cry longingly for the King of the universe to return triumphantly, to remove the curse, to restore liberty.  The hope of that Baby’s arrival that first Christmas Eve is but a prelude to an eternity in His presence. Just as Israel was hopeful even in the midst of tribulation, so we who live on the fulfilled-promise side of that exclamation point in history even in the midst of despairing situations, can be most optimistic about the future, as we cry:

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free

Thine own from Satan's tyranny

From depths of hell Thy people save

And give them victory o'er the grave

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel

So, as you enjoy this season, do “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christ Mass,” but also, be reminded to plead with the only One Who can bring liberty to enslaved hearts and cultures, “O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel.”

- Bill Jack