One of my most precious childhood memories is of my mother with her violin tucked firmly under her chin, playing Silent Night on Christmas Eve. We sang it in German, the language of the land of her birth as well as the one it was originally written in. We also sang Oh Tannenbaum in German, and in English other carols we knew and loved. When I was very small, there were real white lit candles in holders that clipped to the Christmas tree branches. My mother had brought them with her from Germany when she married my father.
On Christmas Eve we would come together in the dining room around five or six o’clock to have a light supper with sandwiches, finger food, and sweets. Then we would go into the living room where the newly decorated tree stood in glorious splendor with silver strands of thin shiny Metal tinsel draped over its branches—we saved it from year to year. The small white candles were lit before we began to sing. After that we opened presents. In my home, Santa brought the stocking presents, not the ones under the tree.
Some of the traditional carols of Christmas date back to the 17th century or even further. Others, like Silent Night (1818) and Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, (1865)one of my father’s big favorites were written more recently. These words and melodies have a magical effect. They connect us with our past, and not only our own personal past but the pasts of our ancestors who sang them too. The old hymnal of my father’s Episcopal church had wonderful histories of the various Christmas carols. Whenever I have sung them I am always brought back to that church with its wonderful stained glass windows.
One of my favorite hymns, Of the Father’s Love Begotten, has roots in the 10th century, and its majestic chords have a sound that invokes the soaring European cathedrals that predate the discover of America. There is a part of us all which has been called the collective unconscious that embraces the past that is encoded in our very bones and responds to the sounds of celebration throughout the centuries. For all of history, singing has been an important part of universally celebrated holidays like Christmas, New Year’s and Easter.
These connections and others that we experience with the holidays heighten and expand how we feel. Our customs, too, connect us not only to our families but also to our ancestors as is fitting. Those who join Christmas carolers, for instance, are participating in a ritual that goes back centuries when children would go door to door in their villages begging treats and wishing the home owners Merry Christmas or Happy New Year.
The word carol actually means a dance of praise and joy. It may be that we no longer dance to any of the carols of Christmas yet they do indeed bring joy to the heart and happiness as we raise our voices in celebration of the season of peace and good will we call Christmas.