Today we’re going to talk about Christmas music. Specifically, we’re going to talk about why I have had the first CD of Sufjan Steven’s box set on loop in my car for the past week.
So, for those of you who don’t already know this, this will require a bit of backstory. My mother was raised Jewish. My father was raised as nothing in particular, but a nothing stemming from the Methodist and Baptist traditions. This means that I have a Hebrew name and, when I lived in Tulsa, my sister and I were the only two Jews at school. We got to explain Hanukkah to our classmates. This was made weirder by the fact that, in my family, Hanukkah was celebrated at the same time as Thanksgiving.
There is some longwinded family scheduling lore behind this, but the basic facts were this: Thanksgiving and Hanukkah happened at the same time for child-me, and they were followed by Christmas with my dad’s family. This worked pretty well.
Perhaps because Christmas required nothing of me in terms of my budding, confusing religious identity, it was my favorite holiday as a child. I got to go to Arkansas, and I got to decorate a tree with my husky ornament who always broke its leg, and there were presents. What’s more, in the lead up to the holiday, there was the annual elementary school winter holiday sleepover.
We said “winter holiday.” We meant “Christmas, but in the secular sense, with carols and hot chocolate.” And every winter, my classmates and I (all 20 of us!) would pile up on a schoolbus with the other grades and our elementary school principal, and he would sing us a wide variety of folk Christmas carols, and we would go drive through the lights and walk around and drink hot chocolate in the snow. To this day, my sister is the only one who will sing most of these carols with me, because they were obscure enough that no one outside of my elementary school has ever heard of them. I have the carol education of an 18th-century governess, I think.
I loved this sleepover. I loved the songs. I loved the snow, and the lights, and the hot chocolate. My memories around this sleepover are some of the happiest of my very happy childhood.
These memories came to mind as I was driving through town the other day with Sufjan Stevens blaring on my (now-fixed!) car stereo. I love the Sufjan Stevens Christmas albums, despite the fact that they were a Hanukkah gift. And I was trying to figure out why, even before Thanksgiving, I had returned to the album full of folk carols that–for the most part–I don’t even know.
I think it’s just because they are so unbelievably optimistic. In the world of Christmas carols–whether the ones that my elementary principal sang on the school bus or the ones Sufjan Stevens composed for his family–the world is full of hope that the sun will come back, and Christ will return, and the world will be full of major chords. Given its location in the seasonal calendar, Christmas is a profoundly optimistic holiday. It’s hard to believe that the sun will come back in the midst of a horrible dark winter full of crying on parking garages, but–Mayans aside–it probably will. It takes faith outside of what I myself can muster to believe that. It takes even more to put the ideas into song.
I am not looking forward to the next week. It could potentially be wonderful. It could potentially be the worst of my life so far. I am surrounding myself with Christmas carols to avoid thinking about either of them, I think. I am powerless to make my current situation suck one iota less, but I can surround myself with the optimism of Sufjan Steven’s Christmas carols and my childhood memories of drifting off to the sounds of “Old Toy Trains” on a cold schoolbus before we got dosed with hot chocolate and slept in sleeping bags next to the school python’s cage. It’s a little tacky, but for me the Christmas music season is going to start now, Thanksgiving be damned.