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Posts tagged christmas

Sean Quigley - Little Drummer Boy, 30 November 2011 :: thanks @MichaelMeinema!
by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

Oh woman, you may keep the gold.
The child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His piercèd hand will hold no scepter.
His haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning, he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life, and receive our death,
and the keys to his city
belong to the poor.

These words are sung by Melchior at the climax of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s operetta “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which we listened to this Christmas morning. “Amahl” is a small gem of poetry and music that bears eloquent and imaginative witness to the journey of the Magi and the hope of Christmas, and it rarely fails to bring me to the brink of tears. Its emotional and narrative heart is centered on the one character who is not named in the title: the mother of Amahl, the crippled boy. Fiercely protective of her son, she can barely feed, let alone cure, him. His escape into flights of fancy has left her skeptical not just of his tall tales, but of hope itself—making her an unmistakably modern figure in this ancient rural setting. And yet her encounter with the extraordinary Night Visitors give this very ordinary mother hope that there is a new King and Kingdom coming into the world—even before the story’s miraculous conclusion.

Here is the amazing and sobering truth: in 1951, this was popular culture. Menotti composed “Amahl” for NBC, and it was broadcast live on Christmas Eve from Rockefeller Center, with a viewership (if Wikipedia is to believed) of perhaps 5 million. To be sure, even in 1951 an opera, no matter how accessible and affecting, was a stretch for TV. But still, in 1951, this was prime time stuff: Menotti’s graceful, modal melodies; the poetry of Melchior’s aria and the shepherds’ welcome; and an unguarded (if somewhat sentimental) meditation on what the coming of Christ into the world might mean for skeptical and wounded souls.

I am not generally a declinist, let alone a pessimist, about American culture. There was plenty of junk on NBC in 1951, and there is decent work being done on television today (or so I’m told by my discerning friends). But listening to “Amahl” this morning I was weighed down by the depressing sense that no one in any corner of American popular culture is creating that kind of accessible excellence any more. Consider also “West Side Story,” Bernstein and Sondheim’s masterpiece that premiered in 1957. Neither “Amahl” nor “West Side Story” were “high” culture—they were for ordinary Americans, presented in the media of middle-class American entertainment. But in a world that had not yet been fully colonized by consumerism’s race to the lowest common denominator, they could make demands on their audience, and offer corresponding rewards, that no one attempts today.

NBC quickly stopped broadcasting operas in prime time. And the age of publicly endorsed works of such transparent piety is also past. If we value works that reflect accessible excellence and imaginative faith, we will have to make them ourselves. But to make them we will first have to love them—and cultivate an audience for them. The decline of popular culture was the work of generations, each asking less of, and offering less to, their children than they had experienced themselves. Restoration, likewise, will take time. If you want to contribute to a flourishing culture and have children in the house this Christmas, you could do worse than introduce them to “Amahl.”


Oddly enough, the composer of the tune we associate with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” did not intend it for such a sacred use. In fact, he specifically noted that this song should not be used for anything having to do with God.

In 1840, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a song for the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig, Germany. His “Festgesang” celebrated the invention of movable type and printing some 400 years earlier. Mendelssohn recognized the potential popularity of his tune, and advised his publisher concerning its potential use. According to Mendelssohn, in a letter to Mr. E. Buxton, if the right words were written for his song,

I am sure that piece will be liked very much by the singers and the hearers, but it will never do to sacred words. There must be a national and merry subject found out, something to which the soldier-like and buxom motion of the motion of the piece has some relation, and the words must express something gay and popular, as the music tries to do. (The Musical Times, Vol 38).

. . . . But in 1855, William H. Cummings, the organist at Waltham Abbey in England, who later became a leading English musician, adapted Mendelssohn’s “Festgesang” to the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Previously, this piece had been sung to different tunes. Originally, it was sung to the tune EASTER HYMN, which we use for “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” (or “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”), another of Charles Wesley’s hymns. But when Cummings’ version was published, it quickly became the standard tune for the carol. Soon it was being sung with this tune, not only in England, but also in the United States as well.

So, by the late 18th century, the lyrics that the original writer, Charles Wesley, rejected were being sung to a tune that the composer said should never be used for sacred music. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is, indeed, the carol that shouldn’t exist.

from "Always in the Season," by Pomplamoose, 2009 :: via Boing Boing

[Advent Conspiracy’s] slogan was “Spend Less, Give More,” and the idea is to give gifts of time, things that you make yourself, things that require a little more thought but often less money. And maybe Advent, and Christmas, will be a little less miserable. Start some traditions that don’t make the holidays simply something that adds to the stress, and leave behind the lesson that the best thing to ask a kid about Christmas is “What do you want?

I know, not all of our readers are Christians or celebrate Christmas: on behalf of those of us who have been in-your-face with our “Reason-for-the-Season” buttons (while elbowing you aside for the cheap foreign-made crap at the big box stores), I apologize, and I hope that this year maybe a small percentage of people will start a new holiday tradition for their families, making Christmas just a little more enjoyable for everyone—especially those who can’t stand it.

from "Christmas is NOT Too Consumeristic!," by Jeff Heidkamp, Not The Religious Type, 30 November 2009

Third of all, at Christmas, people spend a lot of time and money on getting together with other people to eat and celebrate together.  This is one of the healthiest things in the world to spend time and money on.  Again, people complain about the stress of putting together nice Christmas events.  But I would argue that love is usually costly- it isn’t easy to love well.  And there is nothing unspiritual about good hospitality and great times of being connected to friends and family. As far as all the commercial accouterments- well, it’s America.  I would simply suggest that attacking Christmas is attacking consumerism in the wrong place.  People dump tons of money on themselves ALL the time.  Christmas is the one shot we get at encouraging people to spend money to show love to other people and spend time being connected to the people that matter most.  If that means I have to listen to the Chipmunks Christmas album at the grocery store in October, so be it.

from Love in the Ruins, by Walker Percy

Barbecuing in my sackcloth.

The turkey is smoking well. The children have gone to bed, but they’ll be up at dawn to open their presents.

The night is clear and cold. There is no moon. The light of the transmitter lies hard by Jupiter, ruby and diamond in the plush velvet sky. Ellen is busy in the kitchen fixing stuffing and sweet potatoes. Somewhere in the swamp a screech owl cries.

I’m dancing around to keep warm, hands in pockets. It is Christmas Day and the Lord is here, a holy night and surely that is all one needs.

On the other hand, I want a drink. Fetching the Early Times from a clump of palmetto, I take six drinks in six minutes. Now I’m dancing and singing old Sinatra songs and the Salve Regina, cutting the fool like David before the ark or like Walter Huston doing a jig when he struck it rich in the Sierra Madre.


from "a Christmas Eve thought," by Alan Jacobs, Text Patterns, 24 December 2008

There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are a modern Christian Englishman, you hail (of course) with the same explosion of gaiety the appearance of the English Sunday. But I say that whatever the day is that is to you festive or symbolic, it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before. And all the old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. Especially it ought to be observed in connection with what are called the Christmas numbers of magazines. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be still lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favour the editors being tied up in brown paper. Whether the leg or arm of an editor should ever be allowed to protrude I leave to individual choice.

excerpt Goat, $75

The early-morning bleating of a dairy goat is a happy sound for children in countries like Haiti and Kenya — they know it’s ready to be milked. A goat nourishes a family with protein-rich milk, cheese, and yogurt, and can offer a much-needed income boost by providing offspring and extra dairy products for sale at the market. It even provides fertilizer that can dramatically increase crop yields!


Human beings, left to themselves, have imagined God in all sorts of shapes; but – although there were one or two instances, in Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, of gods being pictured as boys – it took Christianity to introduce the world to the idea of God in the form of a baby: in the form of complete dependence and fragility, without power or control. If you stop to think about it, it is still shocking. And it is also deeply challenging.

God chose to show himself to us in a complete human life, telling us that every stage in human existence, from conception to maturity and even death, was in principle capable of telling us something about God. Although what we learn from Jesus Christ and what his life makes possible is unique, that life still means that we look differently at every other life. There is something in us that is capable of communicating what God has to say – the image of God in each of us, which is expressed in its perfection only in Jesus.

Hence the reverence which as Christians we ought to show to human beings in every condition, at every stage of existence. This is why we cannot regard unborn children as less than members of the human family, why those with disabilities or deprivations have no less claim upon us than anyone else, why we try to make loving sense of human life even when it is near its end and we can hardly see any signs left of freedom or thought.

from "Anubis stands guard at D/FW Airport," by Terry Maxon, AIRLINE BIZ Blog, 19 December 2008

Anubis, that wacky Egyptian god with the head of a jackal and the body of a human, is hanging around Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Actually, a 26-foot-tall statue of Mr. Anubis, known as the god of the dead or the underworld, was installed Friday at Founders Plaza, at the airport’s northwest corner.Anubis at DFW Airport Dec. 19, 2008.jpg

There he’ll stand for a while, watching airplanes take off and land with the other Founders Plaza planewatchers.

Mr. Anubis, with his back to the airport as he faces north, is there to celebrate the King Tut exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art. Says airport CEO Jeff Fegan:

The placement of Anubis at our highly popular Founders’ Plaza observation area highlights the cultural and economic significance of DFW International Airport to the North Texas region.

This will allow thousands of local citizens and international tourists to get a up-close look at this unique statue and allow DFW a great opportunity to support the DMA as part of our Owner Cities Program.

To see this fine bit of statuary, go south on Texas Trail off of State Highway 114 until you can’t go any more.

And yes, that is a candy cane in Mr. Anubis’ hand.

from "It’s a Narnia Christmas," by Laura Miller,, 18 December 2008

The presence of Father Christmas [in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe] bothered many of Lewis’s friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, whose Middle-earth was free of the legends and religions of our world, objected to Narnia’s hodgepodge of motifs: the fauns and dryads lifted from classic mythology, the Germanic dwarfs and contemporary schoolboy slang lumped in with the obvious Christian symbolism.

But Lewis embraced the Middle Ages’ indiscriminate mixing of stories and motifs from seemingly incompatible sources. The medievals, he once wrote, enthusiastically adopted a habit from late antiquity of “gathering together and harmonizing views of very different origin: building a syncretistic model not only out of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoical, but out of pagan and Christian elements.” . . .

The unifying principle of Narnia, unlike the vast complex of invented history behind Middle-earth, isn’t an illusion of authenticity or purity. Rather, what binds all the elements of Lewis’s fantasy together is something more like love. Narnia consists of every story, legend, myth or image — pagan or Christian — that moved the author over the course of his life.