Even at its most far-reaching and conceptual, Sufjan Stevens’ music feels comforting. The intimacy comes not only from his voice, but also from his unfaltering commitment to beauty through grand sonic visions and intricate lyrics; it’s difficult to think of someone else who would debut on Austin City Limits wearing butterfly wings and backed by a “band of butterflies.” Sufjan’s albums are towering in terms of the arrangements and the narratives (both within the albums and surrounding them), but within the world of each song, things are quieter, with crystalline details and deeply-felt revelations. It makes sense that Sufjan would be drawn to Christmas music. Although of course Christmas songs can be meditative and glassy, as with hymns like “Silent Night,” they are largely known for reveling in the joys of companionship and warmth. Especially considering the bleak exploration of grief on Carrie & Lowell, Christmas songs feel like a sort of respite for Sufjan, allowing him to channel in full force the hope that pokes through even his most desolate songs.
“Put the Lights on the Tree” is sheer joy, invigorated by an all-encompassing sense of social connection and spiritual fulfillment. The chorus of backing voices reminds me of the singalong led by Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas!: the song is upbeat and heart-on-sleeve, and the bursting acoustic arrangements suggest a sense of teamwork in that everyone has gathered together to create something cheerful. This spirit does reflect the material motivations of the holiday season: the title and the opening lines attest to the childlike giddiness of preparing for Christmas, for making something look pretty and for celebrating around those you’re closest to. Still, it wouldn’t be Sufjan if the buoyant excitement of Christmas festivities weren’t grounded in religious reverence. The narrator urges the listener or perhaps another character to, “Call your grandma on the phone, if she’s living all alone,” and remind her of the core Christian belief that with Jesus, we have nothing to fear. Still, this is not the message that soothes the disheartened listener; the ultimate resolution, “If she’s crying on the phone,” is to tell her you’ll be there soon. These final lines are a tender reminder that we heal through in-person connection. In under two minutes, “Put the Lights on the Tree” warms the listener with sincerity and uplift that only Sufjan can deliver.
Emma Willibey is a student in creative writing at the University of Tulsa. When she is not listening to Sufjan’s Christmas songs, she is waiting patiently for her favorite bands to announce tour dates in Oklahoma.