This is a beautiful Austrian carol the choir sang at last year’s Midnight Mass. I can’t believe I never heard of it until now:
Still, still, still, one can hear the falling snow. For all is hushed, the world is sleeping. Holy Star, its vigil keeping. Still, still, still, one can hear the falling snow.
Sleep, sleep, sleep, ’tis the eve of our Savior’s birth. The night is peaceful all around you, close your eyes, let sleep surround you. Sleep, sleep, sleep, ’tis the eve of our Savior’s birth.
Dream, dream, dream, of the joyous day to come. While guardian angels without number watch you as you sweetly slumber. Dream, dream, dream, of the joyous day to come.
I hope Athenae (who’s one of my very favorite writers) doesn’t mind that I stole her entire post, because it’s all of a piece and I really want people to read it:
The days are dim and cold and short. I think that’s what it is.
I think that’s why we drape our homes in strings of stars and light the fire and invite people in: Gather close, because your warmth keeps out the wind. Our traditions date from times when winter meant death, when winter meant the very old and very young and very ill were felled sooner than expected, and a community could expect to lose its weakest members and, if they weren’t careful, its strongest as well.
As we still can, in many places. As we still do, so very close to home.
Every year, I complain about the cold, about the inconvenience of travel in the snow, about the seeming endlessness of the overcast sky, but winter speaks to me like a muscle-memory, knit into some deep German part of me that knows that cold outside is imperative for warmth within.
It’s an instinct I obey: Prepare. Stock up. Reinforce the window frames, unroll the rugs, take the thickest blankets out of storage. Bake bread and make stew and chili and fill the freezer, just in case. The pantry is full of seasonings and supplies. Is this all those Little House books I read? There are two grocery stores within walking distance and we live on the second floor; we’re in no danger of being snowed in. Our traditions are about interdependence: Share what you have, because that way everyone has enough. Maybe I just want to have enough to share, so that if you come to the door I can feed you.
(If the Detroit Lions came to the door, I could feed them. We won’t have to grocery shop until June.)
I want to gather everyone in. We’ve had a steady parade of houseguests since Thanksgiving: The only point to having more than one room is to fill the others with people you love. I feel that way about this place, too. Why have this room unless it’s full of people? The Secret Santa thing made me so happy, because it showed me and the rest of the Internet how much you care about each other. I’ve always wanted to have a house full of people like that.
Especially now, when it’s dark, and the wind is howling outside the door.
Let me begin by discussing the worst thing Frank Sinatra ever did to music.
In 1957, so the story goes, Sinatra was recording an album called A Jolly Christmas With Frank Sinatra. One of the numbers he chose was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the song with which Judy Garland slaughters thousands every time Meet Me in St. Louis comes on television. Sinatra went to the song’s composer, Hugh Martin, and asked him to jolly up the song’s penultimate lyric, “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” which is only the most important line in the whole damn song. Because nobody ever said no to Frank Sinatra, Martin took a walk and came up with the substitute lyric, “Hang a shining star atop the highest bough,” which Sinatra recorded and which, I am saddened to say, has become the almost universally accepted way to sing that song.
I’ve heard at least three new versions of that song by different people this season, and every damn one of them is a hanger, not a muddler. That is how you know how people have the true spirit of Christmas: they’re muddlers. Hangers are glib and shiny and all for show. Muddlers know the joy of getting through the raw, inconvenient humanity of the day. Maybe the baby was up sick all night. Or the pipes burst and you need a plumber on Christmas morning. (I am raising my hand right now.) Or the paycheck’s gone, and the plant’s shuttered, and you’re on the 94th week of unemployment, or, truth be told, you can’t get a room and you wind up sleeping in a stable with your pregnant wife. Bob Cratchit was a muddler. Muddlers know the triumph of surviving hard times with your charity and your joy all but battered, and yet somehow intact. Hangers shine, but they tarnish quickly. Take the time to work with a muddler, and you’ll see a stubborn glow.
There are a lot of muddlers in our country this Christmas time. Eight percent of us are officially unemployed. An untold percentage are both unemployed and beyond our ability to count. Our politics seem cheap and sour. Our dedication to doing anything greater than ourselves is truncated by the Procrustean limitations of economics and a desiccated American imagination. People look for work, day after day after day. The medical bills go on the credit card. The people who run Santa Claus agencies tell us that the two items most often asked for this season by the children who shuffle onto Santa’s lap are… socks… and food.
But there has been some stirring. It’s easy to dismiss the Occupy movement, especially now that so many of the encampments have been broken up for the moment. But there is in that strange, leaderless collection of political omnivores a very coherent sense that there is a direction in which the country ought to go that is manifestly different from the direction in which it seems to be heading. It is no longer a sense of drift. There is a goal there, hazy to be sure, far distant over a clouded horizon, but a place to move toward with genuine resolve. This is muddling in the finest sense of the word.
I always feel better after a full night’s sleep. Plus, Christmas toast! Woo hoo!
What did you find under your tree?
But as far as I’m concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman – sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing ham. When we came out of the church that night it was cold and clear, with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead. And I thought about the Angel of the Lord – Gladys, with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us everywhere: ‘Hey! Unto you a child is born!’
“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” – Barbara Robinson
Here is how this book begins: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” These truly nasty kids bully their way into the lead roles in a church Christmas pageant to get free hot chocolate and cookies, but by the end of the book, their unexpected Christmas spirit has us in tears.
What can I say? I’m such a sucker for a redemption story. Whether it’s Scrooge, the Herdmans, George Bailey, the Grinch, little Susan Walker – or me, I just can’t resist the story of someone who once was blind, but now they see.
This is what I wish for all of you this Christmas: To see, to fly above the despair. To understand why Christmas resonates throughout the world, even in places where they don’t especially care (or even believe) that Jesus was born in a stable.
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