California Forum

Harkening to the herald angels – or even just the Godfather of Soul

One pleasure of the holiday season is rediscovering the comfort of family traditions. Or making your own.
One pleasure of the holiday season is rediscovering the comfort of family traditions. Or making your own.

My wife Kate and I have overlapping but not identical tastes in music. If she leaves the house while I am working from home, her Joni Mitchell tunes are usually replaced with favorites by Rick James, Parliament Funkadelic and James Brown. I often feel that I am kin with James Brown.

But recently when Kate ventured out to catch up with old friends, I did not switch off the Christmas choral music she had been playing while preparing for her evening. The songs she had chosen helped me refocus my thoughts on our family and our home this late December. Holiday music, and for us that means primarily Christmas music, serves to connect us with traditions of yesteryear and a time when as children we actively participated in family rituals.

As I reflect on family Christmases of yesteryear, I realize that these were some of the few songs for which we knew all the words, even those of the obscure secondary verses.

As a youth, I would walk with my mom to the Christmas tree vendor in our Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and then trudge back through the snow, dragging a Christmas tree that grew heavier by the block. Back home, I remember feeling the warmth of Christmas surround me, along with the smell of fresh pine.

We would hang the same impossibly fragile ornaments that my grandmother had hung on trees in Pennsylvania when she was a girl. A few broke every Christmas, and by the time we sold our D.C. home in 1989, there were none left.

Those ornaments were unboxed as my mom sang along with the 1960 Nat King Cole album, “The Magic of Christmas.” As I hear choral voices share the magic of those same carols now, and as I reflect on family Christmases of yesteryear, I realize that these were some of the few songs for which we knew all the words, even those of the obscure secondary verses about visiting angels:

Still through the cloven skies they come

With peaceful wings unfurled

And still their heavenly music floats

O’er all the weary world;

Above its sad and lowly plains

They bend on hovering wing.

And ever o’er its Babel sounds

The blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world hath suffered long;

Beneath the angel-strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

The love song which they bring:

O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing.

Those angels still sing to us today. Whether you look for guidance from the unnamed angels in different versions of the biblical Christmas story, from what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” or, as I do, from James Brown, we all hope our holiday breaks provide inspiration and togetherness.

Uplifted by music that might make us feel less weary and that might hush the “men of strife,” we should all get to work on creating or renewing holiday traditions with loved ones, the traditions that will garnish our future memories like so many unbreakable ornaments.

Andy Jones teaches for the University Writing Program at UC Davis. He can be reached at aojones@ucdavis.edu.

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