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The Music of the Ainur

by Tony M.


Music weaves its way as the warp and weft of our Christmas.

Even though there had been plenty of choir practices during November and Advent, Christmas Eve finds Mom and the older kids rehearsing one or two last pieces. That’s in the midst of a flurry trying to gather all the sheet music: with 6 choir members singing 4 different parts for 2 completely different masses, that’s a lot of sheet music. But of course that music has to contend with a lot of other noise: Bill complains that he can’t find the gifts he secreted in Jane’s closet to keep them away from his brother, Mom has 2 pies in preparation with the mixer going, Pop calms Philomena’s teary wail about yet another gift that won’t stay wrapped (possibly because basketballs are not meant to be wrapped), and Mariana flounces in from California just in time to turn the entry hall into a war zone of competing greetings – again. Pop usually has an idea of 9/10ths of the things that need to be done, and by whom. Mom does too. Unfortunately, the lists are in their heads, and sometimes the lists have conflicts. Well, that’s what shouting out the details all the way across the house (over top of 5 different ruckuses going on) is for, isn’t it?

The sounds of Christmas, before Christmas Day, seem a music of chaos.

But by experience we know the chaos is on the outside, not deep down. Each apparently discordant note will settle into a larger harmony.

The battle is not waged merely with sound: sight too has its combat. Each member of the family has to have a clean and pressed suit or dress for Church. For the choir members (Mom and the Bigs and the Mids), it is actually 2 outfits. And the cleaning and pressing also extends to the tablecloths and napkins. And somehow 10,000 gifts have to be wrapped, ribboned, tagged, and deposited under the tree while the rest of the house has the final decorations put up – and the bins and boxes and laundry baskets full of stuff have to be put away. In this case, “away” simply means out of sight, in Mom & Pop’s room, for there is no time for a real solution. At least that’s what the boys think.

Eventually, we drop the last 20 things that “need” doing and head off to Church for the vigil mass. Well, for the practice with the organist an hour before mass. Most of the clan will sing at the midnight mass, the high focal point of the whole winter, naturally. But Mom can’t stand the thought that the vigil mass won’t have music just because the choir sings at midnight, so she suggested a solution and Father D took her up on it: Once more into the breach, dear friends… Pop doesn’t participate in the practice – his musical role is that of audience. Or maybe patron of the arts. So instead he heads for the church to prep for the singer’s seating etc, with the Littles in tow, too young to sing in the choir. As usual, the vigil mass is beautiful. Possibly sitting in the choir and getting the full stereo effect can influence that judgment. Then again, singing lullabies to God as the sun goes down, and extending that into dusk and early evening, is a calming sort of way to kick off the holy day, no?

High-tailing it home after mass, we have just enough time to put dinner on the stove and start a fire before we welcome Uncle Gus and Aunt Lena. Uncle Gus’s wine helps us settle into dinner with a little more ease, I think. The Littles (especially Philomena) keep giving Aunt Lena hugs and kisses just because they are so glad to see her. I am pretty sure the gladness has almost nothing to do with presents, either. While the main course is finishing up in the oven, Mariana hits upon the piano to belt out a few carols. Mariana (the oldest) takes a proprietary view of the piano, since we got it when she “needed a real instrument” to go any further in piano. That she was merely the first in a long line holds little weight with her. While she is there, Bill asks her to play one of the pieces for midnight, so he can nail down his part; being away at college, he missed a lot of practices.

When supper is over the Mids ask if we can sing carols, but Mom redirects them: first start clearing the table etc. While the clean-up starts, Mom leads off with a song that gives homage to the Trinity, turning it into after-meal grace, a simple 3-part round everyone can sing (even Pop can join on that one without wrecking the melody, if he stands next to the boys): “Father, I adore you…”. Then we get into the carols. This process goes on while clean-up happens, everyone doing their part. (As long as for the Littles “their part” consists of climbing into Aunt Lena’s lap or sliding over to the fire while nobody notices. And singing like little piping piccolos.) We try to finish up putting the last 3 pieces on the Jesse Tree (we are 3 days behind), but naturally we can’t find those pieces, what with the boys’ “clean-up” that afternoon.

By experience, we know that trying to sit around the table just singing carols one after another will make everyone late getting out for midnight mass, so we have to limit it to just a few favorites. No, we will NOT sing the 12 (disrespectful) verses for “We Three Kings” that the Bigs started years ago and the Mids added to recently. Somehow, even though there should be lots of time, the constant movement of everybody set on a different task of preparation makes it look like a Chinese fire drill: the Littles have to get ready for bed, the Bigs and Mids have to get their choir black-and-whites on, while making sure their last gifts are wrapped. Mom discusses breakfast preparations and which foods need to come out of the freezer into the BIG refrigerator (i.e. they have to go to the garage, since there is no room for them at the Fridge. Luckily this year it is cold enough.)

Mom gives Pop the last-minute instructions for the stockings, as she puts on her one fine coat and heads out the door to the (final) 10:30 practice. Pop stays home with the Littles – past attempts show that they can’t stay awake for the mass and they are too grumpy the next day to enjoy Christmas with good cheer if they try. So Pop’s job is to wrap up :-) all the last-minute details that Mom and the Bigs and the Mids couldn’t quite finish: the pots and pans. Stuffing the stockings with the right stuff for each person. Getting out every single candle holder and putting candles around the house, changing out the Advent wreath candles for white ones. Cutting up the fruit for brunch, putting a bottle of champagne and kid-wine (sparkling grape juice) into the Big Fridge. More wood brought in and the fireplace prepped for a roaring morning fire. And of course there are 30 gifts need to be dealt with. And since they don’t have tags yet, and since Pop did not buy them…guesses, anyone?

Midnight mass has the choir director pulling out all the stops: parts from Handel’s Messiah (“For Unto Us” and “Halleluiah”), Bach, and on and on, for 1.5 hours. The director feels (and we agree) that you give Jesus the best music you can possibly accomplish, and for 3 months they have been preparing to do just that. They say that “singing is praying twice” (once with the mind, and once with the body), but in a choir singing once in church is like praying a dozen times because you have thought about these words in a different way at each practice. (OK, the boys probably haven’t.) After Mass the choir members give each other small gifts of this and that: sprigs of real mistletoe, small loaves of holiday bread, etc. Christmas is about love, and love's other name is “Gift”.* When Mom and the Bigs and Mids come home from Mass, they are glowing with the light of the angels in their eyes and the music on their tongues: The Babe Is Born! Rejoice! (Fallllllll on your knees…and heeeeear the angel voices – ‘O Holy Night’). Pop has some hot cocoa ready as they unwind the details of Mass, but eventually he shuffles them off to bed before late night turns into just-before-dawn.

Just-before-dawn finds Pop once again quietly moving (thankfully dawn comes late 4 days after the solstice). The fire must be lit, a dozen things cleared away: the Infant Jesus figure to the nativity set found and readied; lighting the candles all around the downstairs; starting coffee and water for tea. When all is ready, he pulls out the little bell used once a year and rings it while climbing the stairs. The sleepy-heads upstairs (the ones up until 2:30) want to tuck their heads under the pillows, but the Littles are eager to roll out and start the day. First things first: all assemble in Mom & Pop’s room (mostly on the bed) for morning prayers. The Angelus has special meaning this day. Then we troop downstairs to the main level. The oldest leads the youngest to the Infant Jesus resting on a pillow, and she carries his figure to the manger and sets him in his place, candles and donkeys and sheep surrounding him.

Everyone enjoys the crackling fire and draw near to soak up its warmth, and to start to pull their stockings down (before the fire can melt anything important!) Pop gets his Pandora play-list running softly in the background: all the great Christmas music, and plenty of the just good stuff too. Along with sentimental favorite versions that aren’t really that good in themselves, but get better with memory. And so the day is set in motion: the delight of Littles watching Uncle Gus open his gift from them and enjoying it – and his then giving them raspberries when they come over for hugs. Brunch with a little too little real food eaten because of a little too much candy grabbed in passing. Wrapping paper and bows finding their way into nooks and crannies where they won’t be found for weeks. Noisy toys getting their batteries for the first time and waking up both the quick and the dead. Mom using every available hand to chop and sauté, preparing stuffing and getting “the bird” in the oven. The boys trying out new fencing moves, whether with actual swords or stand-ins. Pop and Uncle Gus arguing politics over potato peelings. Aunt Lena running a blender to mix some smoothies. Mariana grabbing the Mids and directing them (to hear them describe it, tyrannizing them) so as to get the dinner table set formally, with her special flourishes (daring folds to the napkins, decorative thisses and thats adding color). Ooh-ing and aah-ing over the nicely browned turkey. Dinner conversation running 6 different ways at a time. Dessert plates making merry lighter-note clinking, along with 4 different kinds of pie. Noise is everywhere, but it is the noise of life, of friendship, of love.

And eventually, like the last snowflakes of a quiet fall of snow, silence sifts down on the house.

It is a silence of three parts.** The first silence is the silence of the toys, and the swords, and the kids’ babble engaged with all those exciting things and doings. The little children asleep in their bunks, their peaceful faces a joy to their parents, exude a simple silence. A few odd comments muttered in sleep doesn’t disturb the silence, they just add grace-notes to it. The fire is no longer roaring; the last embers sifting down into ash make not enough sound to stir a sugar plum fairy.

The second silence is the muted music - the impromptu after-dinner grace, the carols, the choir-song lifting to God our joy, the Christmas Morning Bell, the play-list of great Christmas music, and the piano going in the background whilst dinner preparations were under way – all reaching their last rest-note and stretching that note softly into the night.

The third silence is the gradual cessation of the voices of friendship - the extended family members finishing up the renewal their life-long bonds (and life-long friendly disputes) and gone off to their homes with night-time wishes of well-being, as well as the Bigs wrapping up their discussion of disputed philosophy class theories. These songs of friendship are not cut short: their natural course run, their space is taken over by Mom resting in the kitchen humming (in her inner ear, not out loud) over a last half-cup of tea, and Pop in his easy chair, each separately thanking God for another grand day well laid down into the foundations of home and family. This third silence embraces and encompasses the other two silences, for in quietly speaking to God of them, Mom and Pop hallow the music of the other silences and make them part of the sigh of ineffable converse with The Great One who, like Isaiah’s gentle breeze, comes into the quiet places of the soul to make His abode there.

* ST. Thomas, Summa, Q. 38, A2: Whether "Gift" is the proper name of the Holy Ghost?

**With apologies to Patrick Rothfuss, from whom I borrowed the silence of 3 parts.

Comments (5)

Tony, merry Christmas!

The Christmas at your house is not only beautiful, and beautifully described, it also makes me feel like a patzer as a musician. I semi-complain about (not really complain, but just "note") the two-hour evening vigil at our church for which I am organist and at which the McGrews have to sing loudly because of a small congregation. This year I was blessed to have a voice at all after recovering from a cold, but the voice was feeling a bit fragile even so by the end of Lessons and Carols and sung Mass.

It sounds like the M family is made of sterner stuff, particularly the choir members!

I especially appreciate the meditation on silence, and it has a connection to a bit of Christmas liturgy:

"For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne..."

I believe the reference to the "night in the midst of her course" may be the origin of the line in "Lo, How a Rose"--"She bore to men a Savior, when half-spent was the night."

Lydia, thanks and Merry Christmas to you as well.

Our family has had its share of voices out from this or that. In my opinion anyone who can sing and does sing for Christmas is doing homage to Jesus, and that's the central act of the whole shebang. Indeed, although the music (and all the practices, the piecing together sheet music, etc) is very busy-making, it is busy-making precisely in order to honor God in a fitting way (insofar as we can be fitting), so all that preparation is itself homage to God. If we remember to so dedicate ourselves to his service in each thing we do, that is.

Simply lovely, Tony! Thanks for sharing!

Bye the way, Lydia, I didn't necessarily include in my description the faux pas, or the simple accidents, etc. Like everyone else, we have things that don't work out for reasons we never imagined.

Here's a question for our readers: We know that Christmas has a very large body of music special to it. (In going over the sacred, the classical, the folk, and the modern popular pieces, it adds up to an amazing number of different songs.) Why? Why do we humans (and particularly, we Christians, though there are secular songs too: Frosty, Rudolph, etc) insist on making ever more songs for Christmas? What is it about Christmas and song that glues them together so thoroughly? What in our nature demands that we respond to Christmas by singing? We have a fair body of sacred Easter music, but not nearly as large, and virtually no popular songs for Easter.


These reflections are beautiful and inspiring. I'm sincerely grateful for them.

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