In August of 1984, a man sat in the heat in a run-down music studio painstakingly recording a new song that he had just written. I say “painstakingly” because the man didn’t play any instruments. At all. Nonetheless, he was determined to make this recording without any help. He felt that the song was different, special, and he wanted to shape every element himself, even if that meant working out on the fly how to find the right sound on the drum machine or how to play the keyboard parts with just two fingers. He sat alone in a room, recording drum tracks and synth parts and, of course, his own vocals, with only a producer in the booth and Christmas lights for company.
Christmas lights, because the song he was recording was the classic Wham! hit “Last Christmas,” written – lyrics and music – and performed – down to every last jingling sleighbell – by the late great George Michael. And his efforts in the August heat were well worth it; the song was a huge hit. It sold and sold and was securely on track to make the UK’s Christmas Number One – that is, until the release of Bob Geldoff’s little song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which featured every single famous pop singer in the 1984 universe, including George Michael. And, as the old showbiz adage goes, don’t ever try to compete with a song that’s raising money for famine relief in Africa. So no Christmas Number 1 for George Michael that year. But Last Christmas has continued to sell. It’s been on the charts almost every year since 1984, and it’s been re-recorded by dozens of other singers, in multiple languages including German, Polish, and Cantonese. It is the biggest-selling record in the UK never to reach #1 on the charts. This year there was a massive publicity push to try to boost the song into the number one slot for Christmas in honor of George Michael, who died exactly one year ago today. Alas, it was not to be; Ed Sheeran took the spot, and Last Christmas, I guess, will have to wait until next Christmas.
A friend and I were in the car recently when Last Christmas came on the radio…for approximately the 3700th time since Thanksgiving Day. My friend asked me to change the channel, and I jokingly asked if she, too, was a little tired of hearing it (and by “a little tired of hearing it,” I meant was it starting to haunt her dreams like it was mine). But she said no, that actually she didn’t want to hear it because she thought it was just too depressing to be truly Christmas-y. And it is, let’s face it, a little depressing. It’s a song of the broken-hearted, with lyrics that swing from bitterness to longing and back again. You remember the words: “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away. This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special.” A little bitter, a little blue, and yes, a little bit depressing.
All of which leads me to this question: is “a little bit depressing” okay for Christmas? Is a little bitter, a little blue allowed on Christmas morning? Is there room for Blue Christmas, or is Christmas morning limited to Joy to the World and Jingle Bell Rock? Do the words of celebration we sing this morning leave space for any lyrics that might swing from bitterness to longing and back again? Does the exuberant gladness of this worship allow for broken hearts? Or would this Christmas prefer that we leave our worries at the door, stashed away behind some obliging poinsettia? Would this Christmas prefer that, for a moment, we try to put away those things that grieve us, the memories of loved ones we miss terribly, the fears we cannot shake, the images of a world ravaged by mistrust, abuse, and greed? Does this Christmas morning really ask us to just shut up and be happy, because darn it, Christ is born? Is there any room on this Christmas Day for a little bitter, a little blue?
Honestly, I don’t see how there can’t be. How can there not be room for a little bitter, a little blue this morning? Because there has to be room for us this morning, and let’s face it, sometimes we’re just a little bitter or blue. We don’t wake up every Christmas morning light as a feather and merry as a schoolboy, like Ebenezer Scrooge hopping around in his dressing gown. Our lives are not actually like the Hallmark Christmas movies we love so much – the girl doesn’t always get the boy (or the girl), the family isn’t always reunited, the mom and dad don’t always get back together and buy us the magical Christmas present we have always wanted, all our life. Yes, Christmas morning is a glorious morning; yes, these hymns and this crèche and even these poinsettias offer a very particular delight that we can find only at this time of year in only this kind of place. And that is something for which we are grateful. But we are human, too, imperfect and broken, and our lives are imperfect and broken, and that doesn’t change just because we’re singing The First Nowell. There must be room for a little bitter, a little blue on Christmas.
More than that, though, a little bitter, a little blue is at the very heart of Christmas. A little bitter, a little blue is exactly why this baby was born in the first place; it’s why the herald angels sing, why the Lord is come, why unto us a boy is born. Came he to a world forlorn, the hymn tells us; the Word was made flesh in a world forlorn, a world so full of darkness that we, on our own, could not overcome it. And so God sent his Son into that darkness, God sent his Son because of that darkness, so that his strength of his true light would enlighten everyone.
Yes, the Christ child is born this happy morning. But this morning is about more than just happy. This morning is about marvelous things, about true, transformational joy, precisely because it does not ask us to leave our sadness at the door. The morning is about real joy precisely because of the child who was born into the midst of our sorrows in order to bear them with us and sometimes even to save us from tears. This morning can be a little bitter, a little blue, and still wonderfully glorious, because Christ the babe was born for you, whether you’re light as a feather or heavy as a rock. When you are effervescently happy, Christ is born for you. When you are all forlorn, Christ is born for you. When your heart is full and your faith** is strong, Christ is born for you. When your soul feels trapped and is longing for freedom, Christ is born for you. When you are so full of joy you want to play the harp and the trumpets and shawms all by yourself, even with two fingers, Christ is born for you. When you are just a little depressed, and the thought of giving it one more try makes you weep, Christ is born for you. When you are grateful and humbled and moved, Christ is born for you. When you are frightened and lonely and praying for time, Christ is born for you. Christ the babe was born for you.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem, Isaiah tells us, for the Lord has comforted his people. The Lord has comforted you, for he has given you his heart. Even though he knew that the very next day, the world might lose it or break it or even give it away. This year, to save us from tears, he’ll give it to someone special. He’s given it again to you. Joy to the world.
*Much of this information is taken from an article in the Guardian written by Rachel Aroesti.
**Italicized words are titles of George Michael songs - a little homage.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Christmas Day 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia