When I was a kid, music was an important element of the holiday season. It wasn’t Christmas until my mom spun The Ray Conniff Singers’ We Wish You a Merry Christmas album on the turntable. We were the Whos down in Whoville singing hand-in-hand. We were the Peanuts gang shirking play practice to dance wildly to Schroeder’s stylings. We were the troublemaking mouse saving Christmas with a clock’s midnight song. Do you hear what I hear? A song, a song, high above the trees. Also, in our yellow-carpeted living room with a handsome, stately, hopelessly out-of-tune piano.
I’d open the piano bench lid and spelunk through sheet music for the gaudily-illustrated Golden Book Christmas Carols. I was self-taught and played poorly, but one of my favorites to bang out from the book was Away in a Manger. I could always count on my Catholic dad to note, with faux bluster and indignation, “That’s a Lutheran song!” Family legend tells his grandmother forbade anyone from singing or playing Away in a Manger because she said it was written by that loathsome Martin Luther. It was not.
Even if it were written by him, scrawled in ink by candlelight while his hunched back and horns cast a fierce, devilish silhouette on the wall, how could she have objected to these words?
Away in a manger
No crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus
lay down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky
look down where he lay.
The little Lord Jesus
asleep on the hay.
Fiendish! This is where Martin Luther stopped. He put down his feather, arched his back and with a defiant cackle, devised verse two.
The cattle are lowing,
the baby awakes.
But little Lord Jesus
no crying he makes.
I love thee Lord Jesus
look down from the sky,
and stay by my cradle
’til morning is nigh.
This is where the song goes off the rails: “No crying he makes…”
A lie, right in the middle of a Christmas lullaby? Even Santa Baby is more truthful than this. She wants a yacht and really? That’s not a lot.
Jesus was just like any other newborn. He probably went through the post-birth Keanu whoa phase of shocked awareness and nursing. Then he passed out for a good long nap in the manger. A cow bellows, he startles, and the squawking commences. That’s okay. That’s awesome. That’s our Jesus, becoming flesh to know us, to grow up, to teach us, to die for us, to redeem us, to return.
When my kids sing the song or hear it played, I don’t want them to think the ideal is to not cry. In fact, Christmas is the weepiest, messiest, leaky-faced season there is. It’s loaded with minefields of memory, regret, emotion, and complicated family histories. It’s pregnant with beauty, awe, and wonder which can also cause tear ducts to bust. When baby Jesus cried, and he did, there were two very special people there to cradle, feed, kiss, and sing.
I wonder about those songs he heard in his little curved ears. From angel voices to teenaged mama, he moved. He was soothed while he soothed her right back.