Still, Still, Still - Part 1

December 21, 2007

A Musical Christmas Card

Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Every year as Christmas approaches, I start thinking about the advent season and various touching rituals from my childhood. Along with the charming advent calendars, the treasured family Christmas decorations and the joy of a fresh pine tree bringing the reminder of those things that are recurrent and evergreen, I think of the warm glow of candlelight and the elegance of certain Christmas carols. With my own evergreen love of music and its recurrent power of emotional and spiritual transformation, I maintain a single constant ritual of my own every year: I bring out my favorite Christmas music and I grow excited, like a child during advent, about the potential surprise of discovering something new.

Many people groan with the thought of Christmas music for a number of reasons. Like any kind of retail musak, commercial spaces become filled with a never ending soundtrack like gaudy wrapping paper, suffocating us with music that is manically jolly, overly contrived and "contemporary", maddeningly repetitious. There is an emphasis on fun, and funny, so that the mix becomes tacky and gaudy like cheap tinsel on a fake tree. Variety is vainly sought in the guise of popular genres, whether country, reggae, punk or jazz, and overexposed popular icons toss their ephemeral celebrity into the circus ring of Christmas hits where a few linger over the years that winnow them down to the occasional vintage classic. Don't get me wrong: much of the music is indeed fun, good for a jolt or a sparkle like a candy cane or a blinking necktie at a Christmas party.

But this is not the music I think of as I begin my cherished musical advent. Obscured by this mad flash of popular tunes is a deeper tradition of music that is at once more simple and more elegant. It is much older, standing the long test of time using musical materials that are more natural and, well, pure. And within this alternate realm of Christmas music, one can find a much deeper experience so appropriate for the advent season, namely, one of peace and beauty with the awakening of emotional and spiritual fulfillment that the season is fundamentally all about.

The Christmas music I cherish is likely off-putting to many for two reasons. First, it is most often considered "classical music", that is, based on hymns and old-fashioned carols using traditional instruments including brass, strings and organ as well as a choir of voices. And if this doesn't begin to evoke the more staid atmosphere of the concert hall, it may do worse: it reminds many people of church and the frequently troublesome associations of religion. But once these tricky associations are acknowledged and set aside for the sake of the music itself, one can discover a very special world of extraordinary beauty and delight, special precisely because it is not everyday music, but rarefied music of an almost otherworldly place and time, an idealized sanctuary of the heart and mind that beckons us to hear and feel in a special way. It is a respite from the hip and the commercial that quickly comes and goes like crumpled wrapping paper into the trash on Christmas day. It gives us a brief sense of something recurrent and even eternal, just like an evergreen with its perfume of pine and all the sweet memories its evokes.

You many not share my love and perhaps you find just as much eternal joy in some of the music I tend to dismiss. But you can sample some of the music for yourself and see.

I suggest a single song I heard tonight for the very first time. When I was least expecting it, as I was dashing about in the random, fractured preparations of the prosaic day with Christmas looming ahead like an oncoming train, I turned my car radio on and, while making a left turn in a busy intersection, began to notice a sigh of great beauty slowing filling my ears. I parked at my destination as the musical swell continued to envelop me and like an icicle melting in the winter sun, my heart begin to open; new emotion began to flow. Submitting, for a moment, I shed all the loose odds and ends of my practical pursuits and followed the beckoning into that hidden sanctuary where grace stops all time. Filled with music as if it were golden light, I sensed both a deep longing and a its blessed fulfillment. The magical, mystical spirit of advent and this year's holidays arrived to kiss me on the forehead, and I recognized at once that I had found this year's surprise.

The song was "Still, Still, Still" sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Find it and listen. See if it touches you the same way.

I found it for a buck on the iTunes store. I am listening to it now as I write. And it fills my heart like the smile of god, a god of my own greatest imagining: a glow of pure love that embraces everything and everyone I hold dear including you.

Happy Holidays.

p.s., There is a part II to this adventure.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.