When Christmas is hard to find

For MC, with thanks

It seems to me that at Christmas, even more than most of the year, a good deal of pain comes from the sense that we ought to feel a particular way, and, for whatever reason, we can’t summon the emotion we believe is appropriate for the occasion at hand. The solution to this problem, as to so very many problems, can be found in choral music.

Specifically, in the text of a sweet little piece written by Bob Chilcott for the King’s College Festival of Lessons and Carols several years ago.

We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.

The evening was calm, Lady,
The air so still,
Silence more lovely than music
Folded the hill.

There was a star, Lady,
Shone in the night,
Larger than Venus it was
And bright, so bright.

Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady,
It seemed to us then
Telling of God being born
In the world of men.

And so we have come,Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Our love, our hopes, ourselves
We give to your son.

I’m not sure if it’s the stripped-down cadence or the repetition of “Lady” that makes it easy for me to see what must have been a very awkward scene between the shepherds and Mary as they explained why they wanted to see her day-old infant at a time when she would have been taught that she must not have male visitors. But somehow the narrative whittled down to a few details–work, a calm evening, a star, a voice, more work–seemed to me this Christmas like a story again, in a way that sometimes it doesn’t, lost in the memorized King James English or the baroque version in the ward Christmas program or the pa-rum-pah-pum-pums of sentimental songs.

There have been years in my life when Christmastime has come as a triumphant celebration of a happy year–friends seem plentiful and true, school or work has been just challenging enough to feel exhilaration at its completion, God’s close, warm presence is easy to believe in. And there have been years when Christmastime was bleak and painful–when I was numb to the music and lights and joy all around, purely desperate for a glimpse of the Savior on his birthday, eager to welcome the year’s dark close. But there have been lots of years, most years, perhaps, when Christmas has seemed like mostly a list of chores, with “feel childlike wonder, reverent awe, overflowing love for Jesus” somewhere near the top, mocking me all season as I failed to check it off with a satisfying click of accomplishment.

And that’s why I like thinking about the shepherds reporting: “Well, this is what happened, ma’am, and we’ll go back to work now, for your Son’s sake.” ‘Glorifying and praising God, as it was told unto them.’ We praise God; we do Christmas; we tell the story, over and over, sometimes with feeling, sometimes not so much, because that is what Christians do. What our bodies do, our hearts can learn.


  1. StillConfused says:

    I will admit that this holiday season, I am on feelings strike. That could be because I have been laying wood floor, doing year end work for my clients etc. But I think it will take more than carols to keep me from being Ms Scrooge this Christmas.

  2. Great post, Kristine- and it really resonates with me. Sometimes we just keep marching on. And hopefully someone, somewhere recognizes our efforts and calls them good enough, and makes up the difference.

  3. And by the way, Merry Christmas.

  4. Kris, I needed this today, how did you know? Thank you, Lady.

  5. Amen to the choral music. It’s not specifically Christmas-y, but I just saw Allegri’s Miserere and found it sublime.

  6. Kristine, I need some. Make me a mix?

  7. Great post and God bless.

  8. Thank you, Kristine. For some reason, the knowledge that I am supposed to feel awe and wonder right now always freezes me up. Music always sneaks up on me. I’ll be minding my own business then suddenly some musical phrase slips into my soul, and awe and wonder appear unbidden.

  9. You know, I haven’t been feeling it this year so far. I had pretty much given up on it, but I think that this post has given me a little more hope for feeling it again; maybe not this “year’s dark close”, but maybe. Maybe.

  10. Thanks for this, Kristine.

  11. Kristine, this is why you are one of my favorite human beings.

  12. Absolutely beautiful. I just downloaded it. Thank you. My favorite composer of Christmas choral music is John Rutter who’s recorded some wonderful things, much with the Cambridge Singers. It does not seem like Christmas until I hear his music.

    Thank you for this, though. This whole album was wonderful and is going into my Christmas collection.

  13. Thank you Kristine for this post.

    I just aced the Christmas Trivia Quiz at work. I believe that what gave me a leg up on my competitors twas that I had been listening to more Christmas music than they had this past several weeks.

  14. “The solution to this problem, as to so very many problems, can be found in choral music.”

    I love it.

  15. As for the main point of the post, that by “doing Christmas” our hearts will (hopefully) follow, I have to say that I never before thought about it in this way. I could have used this insight today at Sacrament Meeting when I (unfairly) dismissed the banal rendering of yet another Christmas hymn by the less than prepared organist. Next time, I will keep singing, and hope my heart will follow.

  16. Really awesome post. Thank you.

  17. Something I really needed to hear right now. Thanks!

  18. Kristine – Thanks for the post and for reminding me of the importance of music in my life. For me it is not just choral music but beautiful music in general that brings me closer to God – not just at Christmas but all year long. Have you heard Yo Yo Ma perform Ennio Morricone’s compostion of Gabriel’s Oboe? It is divine.

    Merry Christmas

  19. MikeInWeHo says:

    What a lovely post. The notion that we ought to feel a certain way at Christmas implies that if we don’t, then we must be doing something wrong. And that leads to guilt. Another solution to this pain is to change with way we think in those moments. Our mistake begins with the belief that we “ought” to feel something.

    No we don’t! We can’t control our feelings, but we can change what we tell ourselves in response to them.

    “The Christmas season is stressful and sometimes I wish I could cancel the whole thing” is a lot healthier than “What is wrong with me? Why aren’t I joyful like everybody else?”

  20. nasamomdele says:

    This has been an overwhelming Christmas season so far. The in-laws have already pushed me over the edge and preparations under budget constraints have often caught me wishing away the “need” to give.

    But there have been satisfying moments- my 18-month old running up on stage at the Ogden amphitheatre while voice-male was doing their acapela thing, for one. She was clapping and grinning as big as she could have.

    I’m excited for her this Christmas. I’m excited to see how happy she will be to play with wrapping paper and bows.

    I’m excited to see my wife’s face when she sees what I got her- that she’ll know I’ve been thinking about her and what she wants.

    I can’t wait to stop Christmas dinner with the in-laws and tell them I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.

    I can’t wait to have a family talent show on Christmas day and watch the little kids play in a nativity scene- something is going to go wrong and I can’t wait to laugh.

    Most of all I can’t wait to be like the shepherds and publish the news of Christ’s birth. To thank God for a savior of my soul, that my life has meaning and purpose, but most of all value.

    Merry Christmas all

  21. Meredith C says:

    Beautiful post. I work as a singer and organist for a local anglican church and we sang this at our Nine Lessons and Carols service last night. I could hardly sing for the lump in my throat. (Also the fact that I had just sung the Messiah in its entirety that afternoon.)