“O Holy Night” has always registered as one of the sadder, more solitary Christmas songs to me. If you have an album of the classics, it’s almost definitely not one of the bangers. I always wanted to skip it as a kid to move on to something more upbeat, or better yet, tied in to one of my favorite Christmas specials. “O Holy Night” has the misfortune of being one of the Christmas songs with a definite religious theme, and no cartoon classic tie-in. Even “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” definitely one of the more overtly religious classics, gets the Charlie Brown treatment that leaves you wanting to shout along triumphantly against the frigid December night. “Hark” is armor against the cold and dark, even if you stopped going to church or stopped believing in god a long time ago… and the Charlie Brown aspect doesn’t hurt either.
“O Holy Night” is usually quiet and contemplative, at least the versions I heard of it in my childhood were. It feels like it takes an eternity to end, which I didn’t really appreciate at the time. With all the noise and activity, who wants to take a moment to step back and feel sad? Certainly not me.
I was raised Catholic in a family that attended mass regularly, but I maintained a healthy skepticism of the dogma for the most part. My mom, a dedicated do-gooder with a healthy anarchist streak, would go on to teach CCD and scandalize her students by telling them that the bible stories were just that – stories. They were there to guide the reader on how to be a good person in a complex world, not to instill a fear of an inscrutable divine power.
On the opposite side of that was my childhood best friend, who had converted with her mother to a hard-line fundamentalist Protestant sect, and had told me one day in the fifth grade girls bathroom that she heard God speak directly to her and it was a Big Deal. I remember being the 11 year old version of bemused because I could not even comprehend having the kind of faith that would allow me to entertain the prospect of God speaking directly to me. What would that even look like? How would I know it was God and not just me making it up? I came to the conclusion that if there was a group of people that God had chosen to be his agents, I was not going to be one of them. If that was what faith looked like, I did not have it and never would. I didn’t really consider myself damned or cursed or anything that dramatic, just kind of neutral. We weren’t really a keep the Christ in Christmas kind of family anyway, so it wasn’t as if I would miss out on much by ducking out on God. Christmas would still be Christmas, just with fewer reasons to listen to the more serious Christmas songs, “O Holy Night” among them.
As I got older, the anxiety and depression that I had been treated in my childhood grew exponentially into forms I was unable to contend with for a very long time. One of the casualties of that was any enjoyment of the holidays. My mom had been good at managing Christmas so that her extremely anxious daughter could take part and enjoy the festivities, but even that got lost in the fog. I considered myself so unnecessary a person that the notion of enjoying it seemed wrong. Throughout high school, I had proven to myself that I was so completely unworthy of happiness or a future that I didn’t deserve to enjoy a holiday based on faith, or family, or love.
Here’s where Sufjan comes in. Finally.
What I did come to enjoy in those years, in spite of it all, was music. I had been a fledgling riot grrrl fan for a long time, but a webcomic I read religiously and my local college radio station threw me into the early aughts indie scene with a vengeance. I obsessed over the Arcade Fire Modest Mouse, Tegan and Sara, Broken Social Scene, pretty much any band out of Canada, and of course, Sufjan Stevens. I listened to Illinois when I first got to college, and found friends there that also clung to the bands that somehow helped get me through the last days of high school.
From there, I consumed his other records, but Seven Swans gave me pause. It was his most overtly religious work at that point, and to me, it still is one of his most vulnerable, which quite frankly scared the shit out of me. I claimed to my friends that it was a creepy album and it became something of a running joke to us, shouting “seven swans” at each other in menacing voices. But the album lodged itself in my head, and I read everything I could find about Sufjan’s relationship with his faith. Here was this person who, in his music, laid bare his doubts and fears, but still believed in something. In his music, faith was not necessarily anathema to being kind of fucked up.
I didn’t come to Songs for Christmas until after Christmas 2014. I had spent Christmas 2013 in my grandmother’s house, watching her die from a long illness, and it was the very image of what “O Holy Night” had evoked to me all throughout my childhood. It was the cold, dark night before the joyous morning, except to me, the morning had never come. I sat in the dark, having only listened to “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” and feeling that I would never find my way out. And then, in 2014, a new friend who also loves Sufjan and I went back and forth listening to Songs for Christmas, and we came to “O Holy Night.”
Sufjan’s arrangement of “O Holy Night” was completely unexpected to me. It takes the slow sad meditation on the last night before any of us can find salvation, and turns it into a pure expression of potential energy. The familiar Sufjan banjo line propels the choral singalong, adding more layers of strings, glockenspiel, and horns until we get to the cathartic timpani build up that takes us to the end. When he sings “a thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,” it’s almost a relief. It’s as if he’s saying, “I know it’s been hard and you don’t feel like you’re good enough, but come be a part of what’s happening next.” Few Christmas songs to me encapsulate that feeling of being utterly hopeless and in the dark, but still finding the determination to move forward and create something better. The faith in “O Holy Night” isn’t a faith of certainty or for a certain elect. It is for everyone who has ever felt alone and terrified and unworthy, with Sufjan himself leading the march through the last hours before morning. He is vulnerable and imperfect, but he’s here and that’s enough. It’s enough for all of us.
Molly Sheffer lives in the NYC area where one can have a lot of sincere thoughts about music, god, literature, and video games, but also be made of crystalized rage from October to April. This is one of her first public writing projects in a long time, and she plans on populating littlebutbad.wordpress.com with more short essays shortly. Her next planned project is the Laura Dern Game Jam Zine.