Friday, December 23, 2011

A Chant Sublime

Half my living room is consumed by a grand piano, which my parents bought when I was 13. The house is too small for this behemoth instrument and I know I should sell it, but I can’t bring myself to. I hardly ever play, but every year, on December 1st, I pull out a book of carols.

Every song is special for its own reasons. I remember my first book of carols, with water-color illustrations on each facing page. "Good King Wenceslas" was the easiest to sight-read, and so I played it over and over. To this day I have no idea what that song is about.

I remember playing through "Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming" and falling in love with the simple melody. My father came into the room, singing the bass line of the four-part harmony.

My sister and I used to sit at the piano and sing "Angels we Have Heard on High" over and over and over again, trying to harmonize, trying to make our Glo-o-o-o-o-o-rias operatic. She has a voice that can be shared in public and I don’t, but I like to think that together we were lovely.

I remember Christmas Eve, joining my father in a living room lit only by the multi-colored lights on the tree, listening to The Messiah.

I remember singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" as we marched down the stairs—in ascending order of age—on Christmas morning. Our family was kooky, but a sweet kind of kooky. (After years teasing me mercilessly about this tradition, my husband was the one to start singing at the top of the stairs  the first time we spent Christmas morning in our own house.)

I remember opening presents and listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College in England. "Once in Royal David’s City" always begins with a boy’s solo.  My father told me that the boys never knew which one would sing until the last second; that way the chosen singer wouldn’t crumple from nerves.

I remember when my children were babies, and I realized how many Christmas carols are just lullabies in disguise. I remember the first Christmas that I was the grown-up in my own darkened living room, lit with a rainbow of lights from my own tree, and how I sat holding a tow-headed infant and nursed and rocked and sang carol after carol.

Last year my younger one demanded "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" every night at bedtime. I thought it would stop after the holiday, but we’re going on 380-ish days and counting.

I play through all these songs and more on my living-room-sized piano. I flip through and focus on the easy ones, since I'm out of practice. I don’t usually play a second verse, except for one song that I have to play five times through. I can’t help it. I can’t stop at one verse. This song has to be sung to the end, even if the singing is in my head because my voice doesn't have much range.

On Christmas Day in 1864, in the midst of a brutal war, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was not feeling the holiday spirit. He’d lost his wife in a fire three years earlier, in which he was also badly burned. Then the Civil War broke out. His son joined the Union against his wishes. At the end of November, 1864, Charles Longfellow was severely wounded at the Battle of Mine Run in Virginia.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Hearing the bells on December 25, certain his son was going to die*, Longfellow did what any writer would do: He channeled his despair into a poem, titled "Christmas Bells." The poem is longer and much more specific to the Civil War than what we sing today. Here is a link to the text.

I like knowing this history, knowing that Longfellow found hope in the face of overwhelming grief. That's part of the gift of writing. Often I find that something good starts to emerge as I get all the bad stuff down on paper; a poem taking shape can transform sadness into beauty almost on its own. 

The holidays are supposed to be joyful, but they also bring depression for a lot of people. My holiday blues usually take the form of wishing I could hold a baby in my arms again, or missing the magic of childhood and feeling overwhelmed with grown-up things to do. Longfellow’s words comfort me every year, reminding me that there is always hope to be found in your own heart, no matter how deeply buried it may seem.

Here's a link to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing my favorite carol. The opening melody is by John Baptiste Calkin. That's the one I play, and it's the one I love best:

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
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 pealed 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."

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Have a wonderful holiday!


*Charles Longfellow did recover from his injuries and went on to travel the world.


  1. I almost did a post on Christmas carols. I'm glad I didn't cause yours was better than my could ever have been.

    I used to sing my babies to sleep with Christmas songs too. Away in the Manger, Silent Night, What Child is this. They work great as lullabys, and always seem to touch my heart.

    I never knew the story behind I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. That really adds depth to the song.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. What great Christmas memories you have!

  3. Good King Wenceslas is about a king who notices a starving peasant in the depths of winter, and goes in person with his servant to bring him aid. It's freezing cold out, but since the king is doing God's work, he and his servant stay miraculously warm.

    It's one of my favorite carols. Here's a video of Loreena McKennitt singing it:
    (She inexplicably skips a verse, but it's still a good version).

    Thanks for sharing; I actually have a half-written post about moments in my life closely associated with music. Not carols though. I do love the power of music to define and keep certain moments alive.

  4. Thanks, Sabrina! Reading over the lyrics now I see it's another one of those songs where you really have to stick through all the verses to get the full message :)

    MaryAnn, I think we could have all posted about Christmas carols and not repeated ourselves. That's what makes sharing memories so fun.

  5. I love the "Oh, come all ye faithful" tradition. I may have to borrow that one for next year.

    Beautiful post.


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