Being a Christian in the midst of Christmas is hard. I have tried making presents by hand; I have tried not going to malls. I have tried abstaining from peppermint lattes; I have sat in midnight mass and prayed to feel sober and holy like I should. But time and time again my good intentions get crowded out in the collective search for a holiday that is my own invention. I am overwhelmed by the nostalgia of times with family, before people got sick or moved across the country, before we knew what things were really like around the world. I find myself longing to forget my troubles, my struggles, and instead find myself looking fondly at all the cultural displays—presents, Santa, spiked eggnog. I guess everything does look better under twinkly lights.
Sufjan Stevens, with his penchant for nostalgia and world-weary sighs, just might be the perfect troubadour of this current holiday mood. His new 58-song Christmas box set titled Silver & Gold (a throwback to the song from Rudolph that most of us grew up watching) both celebrates Christmas kitsch and despairs of it. This tension is seen most poignantly in a video for the title track (also called “Justice Delivers Its Death”), set on an isolated beach. In the background, we hear:
Silver and Gold, Silver and Gold.
How have I wasted my life?
Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth.
Lord, come with fire. Lord, come with fire. Everyone’s wasting their time
Storing up treasure in vain.
Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth.
In the video, a boy runs around the beach, playing with a kite. He is so unaware of the lures of the earth; I am forced to wonder how much longer he will stay like this, how long it will be until he grows up just like me. How did I learn how to be this way? When did I start to trust the pleasures of silver, of gold? I can’t even remember.
When I was 17, I found myself in India on Christmas Eve. I was there to save the world, on a two-month long mission trip with twelve other college-aged kids. As we drove through the city, dark and hot and full of the sounds of life being lived, we were silenced by an unexpected miracle. Paper stars were raised high on the tin roofs of several buildings, clustered throughout the city slums. They were lit from within, either by fire or electricity, and were scattered about our drive back to our little flat. Our driver told us that the stars signified a Christian home, a place for the infant Jesus to come and rest.
These were the only decorations we saw, the only tie we had to our own childhoods full of trees and carols and hot chocolate and church services; but we were all silent as we stared at the stars, sprinkled throughout the city.
What did they know about Christmas that we did not? Stripped of cultural celebrations, it seemed like they had everything they needed to be joyous. They had Jesus, dwelling with them, in the midst of the dark night. We were silent; looking back, it seems as if we were envious of their untainted holiday.
Sufjan’s latest Christmas album juxtaposes gorgeous, traditional-sounding hymns with other, less holy sounding music. But even his funny songs have a bit of an edge (I am Santa’s helper, you are Santa’s slave), and many of the spiritual songs are unrelentingly sincere. They almost catch you off guard, transport you to dark nights and shining stars all over again.
But Sufjan is also very clear-eyed about the nostalgia of Christmas past and what exactly we have done to the memory of that Holy Night. His thoughts are best summed up in the song “Christmas Unicorn,” a meandering, 12-minute long meditation on syncretism and consumerism. Some of my favorite lyrics include:
Oh I’m a Christian holiday
I’m a symbol of original sin
I’ve a pagan tree and magical wreath
And a bowtie on my chin
Oh I’m hysterically American
I’ve a credit card on my wrist
And I have no home nor field to roam
I will curse you with my kiss
It speaks to me because I am a little like Sufjan myself: I love the glitter of things too much in this world. And part of me despairs that I love it.
And this is where I connect with these songs. They are nostalgic, they are hopeful, they are full of Christmas past and present. They are also aware that this might not be the very best thing. For of course it is lovely to be a child, running along the beach, flying a kite high in the air; but those times were still fraught with small terrors and worries, family arguments at the dinner table. Do we really long to go back to a time when we were so oblivious? We who grew up, be it over the span of months or years or in a series of days, do we truly want to forget all we know, to carry on and wish everyone a Merry Christmas? I think what we really want has already been put down for us. We want peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. We want the heavenly kingdom to come, through little babies. We want to remember how Jesus came to give life to those walking around not really alive—consumed with a shadow, unaware of the glories to come.
But sometimes we forget this is what we really want. Or perhaps we are running away from it: drinking heavily, shopping manically, forcing magical camaraderie—these have all become a part of the American Christmas narrative. We don’t know how to recreate what the shepherds on the hill felt, stunned by the glory of the gospel. We don’t know how to worship in action, to align our lives with the Prince of Peace. We don’t know how to signal to everyone else in our world that Jesus is here, that he is with us. We don’t know how to celebrate Christmas anymore without abandoning our pasts.
The songs on this latest album make me realize that the holidays are the perfect time to stare these contradictions in the face—that beneath the glitter all is not truly gold. And it makes me realize just how much I love Mr. Stevens, and what a rare bird he is.
He’s the Christmas unicorn, for sure. But then again, so am I.