Christmas is a time for giving.
Last night, my neighbors shared the universal symbol of Christmas -- fire crackers throughout the not-so-silent night. The type of fire crackers that are best used to reduce pails and garbage cans to shards of plastic. The street in front of the house looked as if a local Home Shopping Channel delivery truck had crashed into the remains of Paris Hilton's reputation.
Having shared a local custom with me, I would have been remiss if I had not been big enough to share a Cotton family crack-of-dawn Christmas tradition. "The Ride of the Valkyrie" with Bayreuth fullness. Followed by one of my favorite renditions of Handel's "For Unto Us a Child is Born."
Considering the pyrotechnics during the night, "The 1812 Overture" would have been appropriate. As an accompaniment. If I could stomach that particular fluffy bit of Tchaikovsky.
The morning did set me thinking about Christmas music, though. Even though I am not fond of the Christmas holiday, the music of the season tends to be part of our DNA.
The common carols do not stir my hot chocolate. "Silent Night." "Away in a Manger." The dreadful "Little Drummer Boy" and his annoying "pa rum pum pum." They fall easily into C.S. Lewis's classification of religious music as "fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music."
Of course, there are the grand exceptions. If I were to put together a list of my favorite three Christmas music pieces (without giving the matter very much thought), I would include the following.
I have already mentioned "For Unto Us a Child a Born." It is one of those pieces that has an inspirational text combined with a complex music that challenges the mind while pleasing the ear. And there is little more that one can ask of a piece of music. Especially, one that has been adopted as a Christmas go-to piece.
As much as I like "For Unto Us a Child is Born," it evokes the magisterial image of God incarnated in human form. Fully God. Fully human. It is a good theological point. But that is only one image of Jesus.
A more introspective carol is my second choice: "O, Holy Night." And, yes, I admit that choice is on the list (in part) because of Harry Chapin's incorporation of it in one of his better narrative ballads: "Mr. Tanner" -- a bittersweet tale of reaching too high, instead of being content. And who better to sing one of Christmas's best carols than Kathleen Battle?
But even "O, Holy Night" is a bit too grand for the event Christians celebrate today. What we need is something simple as a manger, as homely as a shepherd's voice, and, most important, that imparts what the day means. How about how Mary saw the baby son she given birth to?
Graham Kendrick's "Thorns in the Straw" does just that. I first heard it about a decade ago. Since then, its simplicity has summed up for me what this day means to Christians -- when God began the reconciliation of his creation to himself.
However you choose to celebrate this day -- and even if you do not -- I wish you the peace and hope that is mine as a result of that birth two millennia ago.