A Grown-Up Christmas

In the last few days, I have come to two conclusions. First, I have completely crossed the line from childhood to adulthood with regards to Christmas. Second, the grass is only greener over here because there isn’t any snow. These conclusions have been building since Thanksgiving ended with Caleb and I unable to find a single radio station playing Christmas music on our drive home and have risen to a fizzling climax when I realized I wouldn’t wake up with a stocking at the foot of my bed. I feel like the white noise of holiday movies and particular Christmas songs has broken through to discernible communication. I finally understand the mystery of the Christmas Unicorn.

For a while, I couldn’t describe what I was beginning to understand outside of the expression, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas.” This being my first Christmas outside of school, I believe this has something to do with the lack of organized Christmas activities. As a musician, I often found December frustrating in its profusion of gigs and performances and holiday concerts. Now I miss the chaos. I never thought I would miss running from the end of semester stress by staying up all night to turn our suite into a police crime scene for Grandma (complete with hoof prints) or painting Charlie Brown stripes onto a wall hanging. I never realized how much the season was dictated by teachers and professors doing holiday themed lesson plans (Where else do you get to read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales?) or the Christmas music one boys’ dorm blasted from their bathroom window. Christmas was made from these things. I couldn’t get away from playing varied arrangements of “The Nutcracker Suite” or “Carol of the Bells”. I had to if I wanted to make music in an organized context. Christmas was handed to me in the holiday assemblies no one cared about and the bizarre sports tradition of my university. I couldn’t get away from Christmas and I never wanted to. And then I graduated.

There was no holiday concert or Christmas open house. Caleb and I went to two Christmas parties, but they weren’t enough to make the season. I saw the Christmas decorations at work, but they weren’t enough to set a mood or set apart a month. Caleb and I have some Christmas decorations, but we haven’t collected enough to fully change the atmosphere of our apartment. And then there is work.

My professor dad was always home for Christmas, even if he had to spend the first few days of Christmas break immersed in grading. The volunteering positions Mom always held took Christmas off. My family never had to worry if we would be able to celebrate on Christmas Day. Now though, I have a job in the food industry. I ended up getting enough time off to be able to spend Christmas  with both families, but I didn’t know for sure until last Saturday. We spent weeks unsure of how our holiday was going to look. And then there has been the atmosphere of my job.

In school, the stress of the end of the semester is always countered with the frantic relief of Christmas break. The hope of no school tempers the stress just enough to keep everyone mostly happy. No such illusions remain in the food service. We get to see everyone stressed from shopping, cranky from late night parties, and exhausted from their children’s extra energy. And of course, they take it out on us.

“What? Your chargrilled machine is down?” *huff* *sigh* “Look, never mind. Just give me…I don’t know. Just give me a number one. I don’t care.”

“What would you like to drink?”

“I said I don’t care! Give me whatever. I don’t care.”

Or:

“Miss? Where’s our food? We’ve been waiting for too long!”

“I’m so sorry, ma’am. We’re working on getting your food out to you as soon as possible.” [and if you hadn’t stopped me, I would have been on my way up to the counter, probably to grab it.]

“This is ridiculous. It’s been ten minutes!”

“I’m so sorry. We’ll get it out to you as soon as possible.”

*Huff*

Our drive thru is filled with unhappy shoppers, people who don’t want to make decisions I can’t make for them. Last year, I would not have believed how angry and stressed Christmas makes the majority of American citizens. Now I do. I understand why they fill their cars with shopping bags and pump themselves with caffeine.

When we are children, Christmas is made for us. We are happy consumers of candy canes handed out by teachers and Christmas cookies at Sunday School. Christmas music is everywhere. We don’t have to think about how all of the songs have sleigh bells. We don’t have to confront the bizarre balance of holiness and paganism. Our parents do that for us. Even as thinking college students, dorms and societies have Christmas traditions that we easily get slotted into. Once we reach adulthood however, Christmas is not handed to us. We have to make everything. We have to figure out how to put the lights on the Christmas tree, how much money we can fit into the present budget. We have to buy the presents or there won’t be any. We have to choose which Christmas music matters, which Christmas traditions matter, which family events we can attend, which ones we have to miss. The burden is overwhelming.

We’re left with two options. First, we can become cynics, spitting about how Christmas doesn’t mean anything. The cynics just don’t go for decorations or Christmas music. They live through December like any other part of the year. They stay away from the hubbub, or they participate in anti-Christmas events. Listening to Steve Martin SNL rants, bitter Christmas music, or Christmas horror movies. Let’s pretend that Christmas doesn’t exist, that it can’t hurt us. Second, we can become Christmas addicts. We can get so hungry for the prepared Christmas of the past that we attack it like starving men. We stuff ourselves with decorations and music and movies and ugly sweater parties. This is the attitude that fills Love, Actually. “Christmas is when we tell the truth,” “Christmas is when you stay with family.” We know these things are lies, but we don’t want to believe it. We want to pretend that Hollywood and ABC can be the providers of our Christmas. We become blind to truth because we don’t want to hear it.

I know there’s some place in the middle. I know there’s a middle ground of Christmas producers. Somewhere, people have decided to find magic in simplicity. I know that Jesus is involved here because the Holy Spirit is so good at taking that sort of pressure off. In this land, the meaning of Christmas comes through intentionality. I’m not sure how to get there right now. The confusion of emerging adulthood is too great. But someday, I hope I can find a place where I am neither jaded nor frantic. I long for peace. I guess I’m longing for the Restoration. Maybe if I follow that longing, if I create out of that longing, I’ll find this place after all.

My Confusing Voice

When I was five years old, my oldest sister received the piano book for the musical Les Miserables. She also received the tenth anniversary concert video. I watched it over and over again. I loved the story (what I could understand of it) and the music. One morning, my sister played “Castle on a Cloud”. My dad remembers it very vividly. He and Mom were still in bed. They heard the piano, and they heard a high, clear voice.

“Who is that?” Dad said. “Is that…Is that Lydia?”

“No,” Mom said. “It’s just Elizabeth singing along.”

“That’s not Elizabeth.”

Mom and Dad came down the hallway to the living room. There I was, sitting on the piano bench next to Elizabeth, singing along as she played. They’d all heard me singing before, but not like this. That was the day my voice was discovered. For my parents, it came out of nowhere. I have a better perspective.

My voice came from mimicry. As I watched the Les Mis concert, I sang along with the Cosette on stage until I was sure my voice sounded like hers. I did something right because my voice has been applauded for the rest of my life. It’s been called angelic, heavenly, beautiful. And it has always baffled me.

When I was little, I decided that I wanted to be a singer or an actress. I wanted to use my voices to make other people astounded. My mimicry extended beyond singing. I memorized Veggietales movies, doing all the voices as best I could. I spent hours telling stories into the tape recorder. I listened hard to Mom’s audiobooks, learning how John McDonough made his deep voice sound like a child’s or a woman’s. I tried to make my voice low to be a man. In my mimicry, I kept finding my way back to the stage. Elizabeth was in a production of My Fair Lady. I had hours of fun learning those songs.

Ohl Oi won’ is a room somewhah…”

But being in plays was hard. Eight-year-olds in a school production are more likely to be cast as Cook #3 than Sleeping Beauty. Even directors who like you can be mean and demanding. I had trouble being patient. I wanted to perform so badly.

In my desire to act out stories, I discovered that I liked making up the stories more than the sound of applause. To be in a play, I had to wait to be old enough, for the right director, for Mom to drive me to practices. To make up stories, all I had to was step outside. I found satisfaction in sitting in front of a computer or with a notebook at my side. My voice took second place.

But that confused me. Why did I have such a good voice if I wasn’t supposed to use it?

I moved and got involved with more school plays. I could do a funny laugh, so I became the housekeeper. But I hardly got to sing, which didn’t make sense. When I made a stink about it the following year, I got cast as the reporter, a nearly wordless character. I ate my humble pie but was even more confused. I had solos in the kid’s program at church and people would not stop talking about my voice.

I began to do community theatre and learned two things.1) Everybody loved my singing, my accents, and expressive voice. 2) Directors pick favorites, and fourteen-year-old outsiders have trouble fitting that role. Every time someone approached me with a project, it fell through. But the applause kept growing. In my middle-school play experiences, I had encountered an eighth-grader who sang with vibrato. Her voice sounded like a grown-up’s. I mimicked it. Suddenly I had a mature voice.

All the while I had fallen in love with writing. I knew it was how I wanted to spend my life. But the voice still confused me.

My mom had a conversation with one of my adult fellow cast members.

“Is she going to pursue her singing?” he said.

“No. She wants to write.”

“What a waste,” he said.

I didn’t understand. My voice gave me offers for parts in high school that I had to turn down because of other commitments. And again the question came. Why do I have this voice, if I can’t use it?

Now I’m a young adult. I’m out of college. I have a job. I write some on the side. And I still have this confusing voice. Why do I sound so good if I’m not supposed to use it, if my efforts are mostly frustrated? I like helping with worship, but it’s not a calling. My life’s a little too crazy for theatre. The only people who get to hear me are my next door neighbors as I do dishes. Except that’s not true. My singing voice is tied into my performing voice, and that I get to use frequently.

“Lydia, can you take drive-thru headset?”

I’m tired and frustrated. It’s already been a long day. But I put the contraption on my head and wait for the ding that means a car has arrived.

“It’s a great day at Chick-fil-A. My name is Lydia. How may I serve you?” I say in my best waitress voice. I am exhausted, but the waitress is happy, perky, and always patient. When a frustrated customer is yelling at me and I want to burst into tears, the waitress is kind and considerate.

One evening, I worked on headset and at the drive-thru window. I took a man’s order and met him at the window.

“You are too chipper,” he told me. “Merry Christmas to you.”

I laughed and handed him his food, realizing that my voice is someone different than I am. I get paid to act every day. I enunciate into the headset microphone, reciting my script, ad libbing when it’s called for. I become a different person when that mic comes on. Every customer gets my best performance, and I am absolutely believable.

This Sunday, I got up to do the advent reading in church. I stood up at the front before worship and read a chapter from Isaiah. I received no applause (which I didn’t want anyway), but I did receive several hearty “Amens!” as I read about God’s goodness and might. For the first time in a very long time, I was not confused about my voice.

I do not know why I “sing like an angel” and read “like an audiobook” . But I don’t care. Every day I work, my voice greets customers with kindness, and in church, my voice proclaims God in a way that helps others understand him and his goodness. What more could I ask?

Musings on Christmas Music

Thanksgiving is over. ‘Tis Christmas time. For most people this means the Christmas decorations are up and the Christmas music is blasting. Since we can’t fit a tree in our apartment, nor do we have a budget for Christmas lights, our “holiday cheer” comes from Pandora and whatever radio station comes through on our car radio. This happens to be the Indianapolis/Anderson Christian Music station (which we were never able to pick up until they started playing Christmas music. Go figure). I’ve always loved Christmas music. Even after being involved in two extracurricular music groups in high school, I still love Christmas music. I’ve found that some of the best music comes from this season.

This year, however, I’ve had a hard time sitting through the Christmas station for extended periods. Something about being in the awkward transition from college to real life has dumped a pile of cynicism on my Christmas wonder. Either that, or the Christmas music always sucked.

This hit me at about the third song in a row to use sleigh bells as background percussion. I guess the thinking is that without the sleigh bells, there’s no way to tell the difference between regular “Christian” music and Christmas music. All of them use the same pop snarl, complete with soupy fake orchestras and too many layered effects. There are still nasty Chris Tomlin songs where he decides to add an unnecessary chorus to a brilliant hymn. There are still poor rhymes strung together with recycled cliches. (So the chorus of your song is “God bless us, everyone,” but you’re not singing about anything vaguely connected to A Christmas Carol. The allusion is wasted!)

“Christian” Christmas Music sounds an awful lot like “Secular” Christmas Music, except that Jesus is mentioned more often. Both contain bad renditions of “Let it Snow” and “White Christmas”, as well as Pop versions of “Joy to the World”. Sometimes there are “original” Christmas songs, all of which are sentimental and badly written.

The irony is that when a cheesy Frank Sinatra song comes on, I find myself settling back into comfort. So my question is, is Frank a better musician, or do I like him because of the nostalgia? Christmas isn’t Christmas until I hear the piano riff of Charmaine Neville’s “Santa Baby”. But is that because it is a really good song, or because I grew up hearing it? Is her version actually more musical than Eartha Kitt’s, or is it just more familiar? Is this the only reason we like Christmas music? Because it touches a place of memory so we get that “creepy Christmas feeling” Sufjan Stevens talks about?

Except, as a musician who is a Christian, I still can’t believe that. There is something sacred about Christmas. Not the consumerism (of which “Christian” music is a part), but the celebration of the Incarnation. Maybe that’s why I prefer to turn to folk music this time of year. I don’t want to hear another remixed version of “The Little Drummer Boy.” I want to listen to French folk songs. My favorite Christmas carols are “I Wonder as I Wander” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. The former is an Appalachian folk song, whose first (and best) verse doesn’t even have a recorded lyricist. The latter was originally a Gregorian chant. Both of these songs are melancholy and focus on the beautiful confusion of the incarnation and the-now-and-not-yet of our salvation, respectively. But when these haunting words and melodies get covered by studio magic and pop-star pouts, it’s enough to make me run to Frank and Ella for some nostalgia.

Or at least listen to a John Rutter arrangement.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67uTQX-OJro

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_2oh42E1_U