On the second Sunday of Advent, I sit four rows from the heavy wooden altar decked in evergreen, citrus, and berries. With the congregation, I sound out an appeal through lips which make the shapes of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”
We reach the third verse of a modern version and together sing the most curious phrase: “Come to earth to taste our sadness / He whose glories knew no end.” And I betray myself with the slightest smirk. Advent perpetually arrives like a gift from the God who knows me best, a season of permission to be myself. Here, every impatient lament and every song of long-suffering suits the soul I carry year-round.
Advent perpetually arrives like a gift from the God who knows me best, a season of permission to be myself.
I am a December baby, born on the 13th day of the month. Fearfully and wonderfully made, early winter wraps itself around my DNA. Each element lives in me, regardless of time or place.
Minor-key ballads and last chords of resolution. Soft, sure promises made by flickering lights which hold fast against the premature dark. A desire to burrow beneath blankets and read poems which grasp for God till day breaks. First fleeting flurries ending before they begin, still quickening the blood. Hints of the hope Franz Wright wrote about, “unendurable, unendurable.”
I don’t resemble the children of spring, summer, or even late September. They debate when to commence playing Christmas music, and I chuckle softly because I listen to “A Long December” twelve months a year. This is my 26th December living inside the Counting Crows classic, a song written to console winter spirits everywhere.
The song starts the same no matter what time of year. As weary and worthy a messenger as we might find, Adam Duritz sits down to coax psalms from his piano. His fingers depress the keys, then rebound, offering suggestions of soul. Then his band’s sympathies fall into place—first, the warm breath of an accordion, then a bass note posed like a comma.
I wonder if perhaps every song is sung beneath one of two banners: Advent or Christmas.
Duritz takes a breath, then exhales romantic, ragamuffin sentiments. He sings of the stale warmth which comes from a car’s heater and naming your mistakes; of forgiveness falling upon the broken kings of California; of the way light, like the Bethlehem star, hovers over a girl, showing the way. Strange how these words feel like home. Strange how a simple “na na na na” expresses a hope that shrugs its shoulders but will not be put to shame. Hope that “maybe this year will be better than the last.”
I start the song over again. And as those piano chords return, I wonder if perhaps every song is sung beneath one of two banners: Advent or Christmas.
Advent songs take their time, burning slow but hot in the space between what is and what will be. These songs string together chords of ache and anticipation, of waiting that’s disappointed yet wakes to wait again for another day. Christmas songs make the sound of consummation, flashing forth with the joy that comes as longings are realized, one after another after another.
Advent songs lend breath and pitch to unrequited love and beauty withheld, to absences which weigh a ton. Christmas anthems express accidental epiphanies and everyday miracles; they testify to promises actively being kept.
Sometimes a lyric distinguishes and divides these songs, though they rarely invoke Advent or Christmas in so many words. Advent songs lend breath and pitch to unrequited love and beauty withheld, to absences which weigh a ton. Christmas anthems express accidental epiphanies and everyday miracles; they testify to promises actively being kept. Often a musical mood conveys the season as much as any turn of phrase, the bend in a melody or a dynamic shift revealing its sympathies.
You hear it everywhere. Bon Iver’s scenic “Calgary” feints toward Christmas but retreats into Advent longing, while “Simple Song” by The Shins is aglow with the Christmas spark. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is a Christmas song alive amid a sure and steadfast covenant. Ironically, John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” somehow misses Christmas, starting at Advent again all too soon.
Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” is an Advent song; Prince celebrates Christmas in “1999.” The songs of Simon and Garfunkel tread the path of Advent yet Paul Simon’s solo catalog tumbles into Christmas.
I hear Advent, necessary and painful, in the songs of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers; Christmas comes in Brandi Carlile’s high notes and Jason Isbell’s visions of fidelity, sad-eyed as they might be.
A single song might welcome both seasons; after Advent’s dark, David Bowie discovers the Christmas in “Heroes” as his voice ascends an octave. Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” lives along a fine edge—Christmas is coming, but it might feel like Advent a while longer. Stevie Wonder owns a deep, wide repertoire of Christmas songs. Bob Dylan nearly always writes of Advent, Tom Waits too. But, my God, when either artist sounds out Christmas, the world spins a little faster.
These two categories attract wordless music as well. The second movement of Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathetique” knows the slow, beautiful pull of Advent; John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” is Christmas beneath the Rockefeller Center tree.
I hum Advent songs all year long; I repeat them night after night to feel less alone.
I hum Advent songs all year long; I repeat them night after night to feel less alone. Their sounds might fall dark upon other ears, but surrender enough of your soul—and calendar—to the music of Advent and you learn to appraise the real, ingrained worth of Christmas’ chords. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” makes “Here Comes the Sun” ever sweeter; “Joy to the World” resounds because “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” exists.
Learn the music of a really long December—one stretching 2,000 years and more—and your songs naturally bend toward Christmas, whether or not it rounds the next corner. Each Sunday till December 25, I will take my place four or five rows back and all my songs will be If you think you might come to set things aright ... I wish you would. Na na na na, yeah.