I don’t particularly enjoy Christmas in any physical sense; I don’t buy presents for anyone and I don’t expect to receive any. We don’t decorate our house or get a Christmas tree anymore. Christmas is more of an obligation than anything at this point, and while that does depress me a little, it’s not a big deal. However, I’ll be damned if the Christmas season doesn’t weasel its way inside me every year. I wouldn’t call it holiday cheer – I’m a cynic at heart and Christmas is no different – but there is a certain pervading joyfulness underneath everything I do, humming away electrically to the tune of whatever Christmas song is stuck in my head or playing over some loudspeaker in a store.
My favorite Christmas songs utilize minor chords, and none do it better than “O Holy Night,” which has always stood head and shoulders above other Christmas songs for me. When I think of Christmas and winter, the first image that pops unbidden into my head is not one of snow or multicolored lights or wrapping paper. It is a very black night in which you can see every star in the sky, and there is profound silence all around. It captures both the beauty and stillness of winter but also those ominous qualities – the cold, the loneliness. The chord progression of “O Holy Night” embodies these things for me. Nothing explodes into glorious abandon quite like the chorus, but it’s so uncertain, teetering on a precipice, until the second half when the major chords signify surety in every bright thing in this world. Add in bells, whistles, and choirs if you want, or sit solitary with your acoustic guitar and play the chords – it doesn’t matter, the song will still carry as much weight either way.
I can listen to “O Holy Night” throughout the year and it always has an effect on me, but never like it does during the Christmas season. That this is the case is obvious, of course, but the sheer power in the song surprises me every December. I’m not religious, so I don’t believe in the song’s subject matter, but I believe in the song. After all, sometimes it’s hard to believe in love, or to believe that politics are something I should care about, or in any other subject that people like to sing about. I think that what is most important about a song like “O Holy Night” is that it compels us to follow – whatever it may be – our brightest star in that black night.
Sufjan Steven’s version of the song from Songs For Christmas: