In search of Silent Night

Sometimes I sing Christmas songs with my youngest daughter and make up my own silly lyrics for giggles.

“You better watch out, you better not poop your pants.”
Things like that.

I was talking to my wife, Anna, about Christmas songs, recently, how there’s so many good ones. So many bangers. When I mulled it over, there were the fun ones, the goofy ones, the sing-alongs and the solemn. I love the sad ones too: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.” Some I just can’t stand. They can’t all be bangers, even if it’s Paul McCartney.

“Silent Night” is my favorite. I’m sure that’s not a unique pick but it’s mine because I have a specific memory of it, maybe a feeling more than a memory, some particular version of the song that moves me more than others. When I was very young, I thought it was Jesus’s lullaby.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to find the version I loved so much and couldn’t. I searched around on iTunes and YouTube but couldn’t pin it down. Was it a woman? A choir? Was it my nana? It wasn’t Burl Ives or Frank Sinatra, or Kelly Clarkson or even Dolly. All of them were fine, even the strange, spoken word version by William Shatner, but none were the ones I hear in my head when I hear “Silent Night.”

My wife is Episcopalian and we got our daughter baptized, in Tennessee, in the church she grew up in, in downtown Chattanooga. I tell everyone I meet my wife is from Chattanooga. You should visit. It was a very nice ceremony and everyone was so kind and welcoming and I could see why that church felt like a community to her and her family.

Last year, Anna and her dad went to the Christmas Eve mass at the Episcopal church in Haddonfield and I took our daughter to my mom’s instead to pester her in the kitchen and get early spoonfuls of her seafood soup because it’s liquid gold. I probably drank too many beers but not too too many. That’s how it’s gone for me, for a long time, maybe why I love that Pogues song so much.

Anna’s dad couldn’t make it to New Jersey this Christmas but she was still going to take our daughter to the mass.

I don’t go to church anymore and I haven’t for a long time. I’m at funerals, weddings, and, most recently, baptisms guy. That’s it. People have had their own schisms with the church, for
reasons large and small, but mine was a very personal split, just a few words uttered at a funeral, an attempt to make sense of the unthinkable and I couldn’t reconcile it. I’m pretty sure I said “That’s it” silently to myself, in the church that day and didn’t baptize my youngest son a year later.

I was never a hardline believer to begin with. I can’t abide the words of the Bible being warped and used as a weapon against people, to make people feel worse about things that are hard enough. From what I remember about Jesus, I don’t think he’d walk with many of the people who claim him.

After that funeral, I just didn’t think about it anymore. I stopped going to church for the holidays or any other time unless I had to. Christmas was mostly a financial burden from that point on, but still some great food and quality time with family. Easter was a delicious Polish breakfast—thanks again, mom- and maybe a burning bush saying “Moses” to Charlton Heston on television. After 12 years of Catholic school, I figured I did my time, the chorus to “Sing to the Mountains” still burned intro my memory from hundreds of first Fridays.

Still, I’m not a total creep, so I went to Christmas Eve mass with my wife and daughter last night. In the church parking lot, a placard said “Thou shalt not park here” and that made me laugh. It was very crowded inside and none of the faces were familiar. I walked my daughter around a bit to look at stained glass windows and someone gave her angel wings and a halo made out of silver garland. She mostly wanted my wife to hold her but we stole each other’s noses and watched the larger angels up by the altar. I’m not sure if Episcopalians call it an altar but for the most part, it all felt the same, something familiar, even the thick clouds of incense.

The service was a medley of Christmas classics, all the greatest hits. “All the bangers,” I thought. I didn’t go to communion, if that’s what they call it, cause I can only go so far. I walked my daughter around some more, looking at lights and windows and showing her where mommy was in the long line. It was getting dark and I was thinking of my mom’s soup and some cranberry wine.

Back in the pew, my wife handed me a candle. She and my daughter used the candles with batteries. The lights went out, row by row until the only light was our little lights in the dark church. Earlier the pastor had said Jesus was born as a light to “scatter the darkness” and I remembered, as a child, how much I loved that phrase. “Scatter the darkness”

The organist began the opening chords to “Silent Night.”

We all sang together and the darkness in the church seemed to grow darker, the little lights in our hands seeming somehow brighter, and I focused on the glass star hanging from the ceiling. I had to choke back an old feeling it sparked. The version of “Silent Night” I remembered from memory and was searching for on my phone was sung by a whole community, live in this church and in churches from my past, a few hundred voices, people who didn’t believe all the way, perhaps, but believed in something enough to be there.

Anyway, Merry Christmas everyone.

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