Last week was a rough one. Across the globe, images of the destruction of Aleppo broke our hearts, painfully reminding us of all the places in our world torn apart by hatred and violence. At home, on the national level, the president-elect named to his cabinet more billionaires, handing positions of responsibility to men who advocate for increased military firepower, refuse Palestine’s right to exist, and deny climate change. In my state, in a blatant power grab, Republican legislators called a surprise special session, passing bills stripping authority from our Democratic governor-elect and the state board of education. And, locally, the release of the investigative report on last summer’s killing of a young black man by a white police officer left members of the victim’s family angry and distraught.
I was relieved when Friday evening rolled around and the week was behind us. I was headed to participate in a tradition launched more than seventy years ago and now, since 2002, an annual event in our little rural town (except the two years when snowstorms made travel impossible). At the mountaintop home of my neighbors Janet and Sam, a rainbow of humanity gathered in candlelight, the warm room humming with conversation over sips of spiced tea.
Sam, dressed in a colorful green jacket from 1960s Bavaria—a gift he later described as “what a Bavarian farmer wore to the pub on Sunday while his wife attended Mass”—blew a few discordant notes on a long, slender brass horn to get our attention. He read an original poem, exhorting us to “sing to keep God’s world intact…sing hope that kindles courage in our hearts, sing discord into harmony of many parts.” Then, accompanied by piano, guitar, and lute, we sang Christmas carols from music booklets mimeographed in 1941, just before the U.S. entered the Second World War. People shouted out the numbers of their favorites, and we filled the room with joyful noise.
After “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” our Spanish-speaking neighbors and a few allies led us in the Mexican tradition of La Posada. Depicting the journey of Mary and Joseph seeking a place where Jesus could be born, they walked outside into the cold night, knocked on the side door, and sang a song asking for entrance. The crowd inside sang our refusal. The procession moved to the back door, and we repeated our parts. When the group knocked at the other side, we changed our tune and happily welcomed them in.
The eyes of the children lit up when Janet brought out a basket of rhythm instruments. A golden-haired girl dressed in a red velvet-and-lace dress and cowgirl boots reached for the seedpod maracas. Two sisters, newer arrivals to this country—still wearing their warm hats with animal faces and long tassels—shook a tambourine and a cactus rain stick, smiling broadly. A Jewish neighbor lit the first candle of a menorah and offered prayers in an early celebration of Hanukkah, retelling the ancient story of the oil that didn’t run out.
Before “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” each of us was handed a card with a number and picture on it. I got three French hens (though for a moment I mistook them for calling birds). We belted out our lines at the appropriate time, the new friend sitting next to me having to wait patiently for the entire song before he could chime in with his twelve drummers drumming.
We listened to an old, scratchy recording of Sam’s earliest music teacher singing a touching rendition of “O Holy Night”—which she had sung to close every Christmas pageant at his school, where each child wore a red cape while singing carols. And then we tackled the grand finale, Bach’s cantata “Sleepers Awake”:
Awake, calls the voice to us of the watchmen high up in the tower…
Make yourselves ready…Hearts leap for joy…
A glorious Friend comes from heaven, strong in mercy, powerful in truth…
Now come, precious crown, Lord Jesus, the Son of God…
We all follow to the hall of joy and hold the evening meal together.
That last line felt like particularly good news, as the time had snuck past 9 o’clock. Before long, the room was humming again with conversation as we gathered round an abundant potluck feast of tamales and ham, grits and quiche, fried chicken, Jello salad, and an array of hearty breads and sweet desserts.
Tradition is an anchor in uncertain times. Let us keep singing together to increase our joy and “keep God’s world intact.”