Christmas, in all of its red and green glories and disillusionments, grows up with us year after year from childhood into adulthood. The meanings we tie to the holiday evolve as much as we do, but some of the ways we celebrate it remain constant. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve traveled to my grandparents’ house in Eau Claire, Wisconsin to spend time with my family, eat a lot of sweets, and open presents under the tree. My parents used to drive my little brother and I over to the designated Christmas House, the four of us arriving together to meet my grandparents, aunt and uncle. Now that I’m older and live on my own in Minnesota, however, I make the cross-state journey over the river to grandmother’s house with the newest member of our family—my son Sufjan (who is a cat).
You may be shocked to learn the name Sufjan does not belong solely to the singer, songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist and all-around musical genius Sufjan Stevens but also to an adorable domestic shorthair cat who bites me every single day. But like the musician, my cat (who I will hereby refer to as “Suf” to avoid confusion) has helped me redefine Christmas as an adult. Nowadays to prepare for the festivities with my family, I spin Christmas records and wrap presents while Suf playfully thwarts my efforts to do so.
My favorite of these records is Sufjan Stevens’s Let It Snow: Songs for Christmas-Vol. IX from his Silver & Gold collection. This record was recorded in December 2009, the same era in which Stevens also recorded All Delighted People and The Age of Adz. For me, the highlight of the record is the song “X-Mas Spirit Catcher.” This track, which shares some commonalities with All Delighted People’s “Djohariah” and “From the Mouth of Gabriel,” has become my Christmas pep song. As the title of the song suggests, “X-Mas Spirit Catcher” has the power to lift the spirits of anyone who has forgotten the meaning of the season.
The song opens with a persistent piano as Stevens describes a Biblical scene wherein the angel Gabriel announces Jesus’s birth to his mother Mary. In describing this scene, Stevens sings “the spirit went where it went,” a line that appears again word-for-word in “Djohariah.” The song introduces the electronic flourishes of a synth-based countermelody and a backing choir, which swell together to form a drum machine drop at the one-minute mark. This musical drop propels the song forward as Stevens reflects:
“To see yourself
what have you done with yourself?
Have you missed it?
To be of life, in living it
love in fullness, life worth living.”
These lines remind me to shake off the stress and exhaustion that often come with being a grown-up and instead channel the Christmas spirit of hope, love, generosity, and gratitude. Throughout the song, the constant pitter-pattering of the choir and Steven’s layered vocals work to drum up this feeling of perseverance. The song reawakens my childlike optimism and fills me with the energy I need to drive Suf and myself ninety miles through the snow to reach Christmas.
Santa Suf on Christmas Day. (December 25, 2017)
Emily is the graphic design intern for First Avenue and the City of St. Louis Park. She works part-time at the record store Electric Fetus and is pursuing a master’s degree in graphic design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Emily can be found @EmilyCsuy and has a portfolio website here.