Hark the Herald Angels Sing (again and again and again…)

Other years, if you were to ask me to name my favorite Christmas song, I probably would have chosen “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The tune is uplifting, and the lyrics are meaningful. How many Christmas songs convey the precise theology of “God and sinners reconciled,” or, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ Hail the Incarnate Deity”? “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman,” and, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are two candidates for good Christmas theology; many other seasonal songs are weak and shallow and trite.

The original words to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” were written by Charles Wesley; today’s familiar version comes from a rewriting done by George Whitefield. The original tune was composed by Felix Mendelssohn; text and tune were brought together by William H. Cummings. The hymn has prominent placement in our Christmas memories, showing up in A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, among other seasonal favorites.

Perhaps that ubiquity of the song has left me jaded this year. It is the seven o’clock song on our Christmas carol clock, which means that I hear it most mornings after exiting the shower and heading toward the kitchen for breakfast. Then I hear it again most evenings after supper. Perhaps I have overplayed the hymn too much other years—especially the version from Amy Grant’s Christmas album of 1983. That version features an enthusiastic orchestra and choral setting of the hymn, including a repetitive instrumental rendering of the third line which has become an earworm, cycling endlessly in my head while I am trying to access other thoughts. Many years, I have set my alarm to waken me Christmas Day with Amy Grant’s version of “Hark….” Not this year.

Another problem I have with the song is a joke my father told years ago about a commercial version of “Hark…”—one that promoted Beechum’s pills. My father never claimed to have invented the joke. Indeed, it shows up on the Internet with various back stories, no doubt all of them apocryphal. But my father’s version includes a line that I have not found anywhere else, so he may have contributed his own wit to the joke. At the risk of putting these words into your head and ruining the song for you (as it has evidently been ruined for me), here are the words my father sings: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing/ Beechum’s pills are just the thing/ Peace on earth and mercy mild/ Two for men and one for child/ Joyful all ye nations rise/ Try the new economy size…”

I don’t know whether to say “I’m sorry” or “you’re welcome.” J.

Christmas decorations

If I said I was having trouble raising energy and enthusiasm to decorate for Christmas this year, most people would probably assume that this is a virus-crisis problem. But, the fact is, the last several years I have lacked energy and enthusiasm for celebrating the Christmas holidays.

The Salvageable family has so many Christmas decorations—and has had so many for most of our years together—that long ago I started a custom of adding one decoration a day to the house from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Day. The first decoration, which makes its appearance on Thanksgiving, is a clock which plays one Christmas carol to mark the hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (It assumes that we all want to sleep between ten and seven.) Then, day by day, more items would appear: wreaths, hangings, tabletop displays, books, music boxes, candles, mugs, china, and so on. It became a game for the children, guessing which decoration would appear next, searching the house to find that day’s new decoration. I even kept lists from year to year, keeping track for myself the order of items to put on display. Big projects like hanging lights from the eaves or putting up the tree would be reserved for weekends. Smaller decorations would appear during the course of the week.

The holiday pattern was broken a few years ago when we had a fire May 5 that damaged a storage shed/workshop and its contents, including our Christmas decorations. Our insurance company served us very well, paying to replace the building and those contents that were permanently damaged and paying to clean the items that could be restored. They refused to consider trying to clean our artificial tree, but the same tree has remained in service after surviving the fire. (It was not in the path of the flames, being scrunched into a box on the floor, and so smoke scent was the only problem with the tree… and we were able to air it out pretty well that spring and summer, first in the garage and then in the new shed.

Our most valuable decorations—including two hand-crafted ceramic manger scenes—were successfully restored. Some items were scarred, such as the hand-sewn tree skirt; it has stains from the smoke and heat, but it looks no worse than any tree skirt that has survived for years in a family with children and cats. We got rid of a few things that we didn’t really like anyhow. But the cleaning of the items that summer and fall returned them to us in new packaging and boxes which have made it harder to locate and bring out just one item a day, as I did for years before the fire.

So now things appear as I have time and energy to pull them from the shed. Today, for example, I am ready to pack up the special china in the china cabinet—plates and cups and saucers that are on display year-round but used only on Thanksgiving and Easter—and replace them with the special Christmas china that will be on display for about a month and used on Christmas Day. If it rains today, I’ll get the china out tomorrow, and this evening I will instead hang more Christmas cards on the wall.

When I was little (and, I am sure, even before I was born), my parents would hang Christmas cards on the living room wall. They had red and green ribbons that they stored the rest of the year; but, as Christmas cards came in the mail, they would add them to the display until, by Christmas Day, the living room wall was covered with dozens of cards from family and friends, just as my parents had signed and addressed Christmas cards to dozens of households around the beginning of December.

I began pursuing the same custom with our household, using white ribbons instead of red and green. But years ago I noticed that we were not receiving dozens of cards each December. So I stopped discarding the year’s cards after Christmas and instead collected cards over a number of years, discarding duplicate pictures and pictures I found unappealing. We now have over one hundred cards hanging in our living room, and I have more than one hundred more to put on the hallway wall tonight or tomorrow.

The tree is different this year. Last winter we added a kitten to the household. He is now full-grown, but still filled with energy and curiosity. So instead of putting up tree and lights and ornaments on the same day, we decided to put the tree up last Saturday, to add the lights a couple of days later, and to hang the ornaments this coming weekend. So far he has taken to the tree well—curling up on the tree skirt, not trying to climb the tree. On the other hand, he has cleared the windowsill of candles that we usually display there. Other years we have survived young cats climbing the Christmas tree, but he is the first cat we have had in the family who demanded access to the windowsills even through the Christmas season.

I am decorating this year as I decorated every other year, but it’s mostly for the benefit of the rest of the family, not for myself. Last month I changed radio stations in the car to avoid the annual tradition of playing Christmas songs wall-to-wall from the middle of November until the end of December. (It wouldn’t be so bad if they would include traditional carols in their playlist; instead, it’s holiday drivel like “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus” and “All I Want for Christmas is you.” Some mention of the Reason for the Season would at least make it palatable, but the reality is far from sacred.) We have our Christmas DVDs set aside—Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 edition), A Christmas Carol (the 1951 edition), A Christmas Story (1983), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and a few more—but I haven’t taken the time to sit down and watch any of them yet.

In short, my Christmas perspective is expressed by a quote from “When Harry Met Sally”: Boy, the holidays are rough. Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Years. Except that we have two seasons to handle: the Advent season which precedes Christmas, and the twelve days of Christmas which begin on the 25th of December and continue into January. None of the decorations will come down until after the 12th day of Christmas. But the satisfaction of boxing them for another eleven months and returning life to some semblance of normal sounds very appealing to me on this 11th day of December. J.