The Carols of Christmas

          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.

The Expectations of Christmas Time

           I remember a few of the Christmas gifts I received as a child. My favorite was a large brown teddy bear around two and a half feet tall I called Bruin. He became the head of my teddy bear family of five. Another was a wood burning set from my Great Aunt Alice. I never could figure out how to use it. One of my most memorable was a gift from my Uncle Oliver, also the giver of the bear: a large balloon in the shape of a Zeppelin tied with a big red ribbon.

           For whatever reason, instead of placing it under the tree, he set it on the radiator in the front hall. In the middle of dinner there was a loud bang. We ran into the hall.What remained was an empty red ribbon bow and piece of burst rubber. My expectations were dashed. The teddy bear he gave me on another Christmas later may have been his way of apologizing. I don’t remember having expectations as to what I might receive. Most of my gifts were practical.

           The Holiday time carries a big burden of expectations. People are expected to be nicer, to be kinder to one another, perhaps even more forgiving of errors and mishaps.”It’s Christmas,” people say, and that is supposed to be a reason to behave in ways one might not otherwise. I’m not saying that this is a bad reason; it is good to be thinking kindly at this time of year. However, we don’t need to make it a given or to be critical of those who are not.

           Another set of expectations revolves around the giving of gifts. To whom do we owe a larger gift and to whom a token? Is a card enough or need we send or give an actual physical present? Even the difference between an online card and an actual one might be a consideration. Our expectations of what is appropriate, what we”ought” to do may govern our actions and present a need for decisions about what to do, as well as stress us out.

           Perhaps most of all, however, it is our expectations of ourselves that are the most difficult to deal with. There is much to be done and it all must fit into the time we have, regardless of the fact that life does not come to a halt at Christmas time. In addition to the holiday activities we still need to do the cooking, working, shopping and so on that we do anyway. It’s enough to take the fun out of the celebration. We often feel guilty if we can’t manage to do it all with grace and good humor.

           Yet we and others might better benefit if we take some time for ourselves. If we use a gift bag instead of wrapping paper, send a card instead of an actual gift or even offer to take friends out for a treat at a later date or offer to babysit their children, we downsize the stress. Less stress means more holiday spirit,and diminished expectations mean less guilt. We need to remember that what we really celebrate now is the coming of a child of Light, or the Light itself,into a world that needs it. Expectations aside, we can remember the true meaning of this season is about the gift of joy to all of us, from all of us.