In my experience, if you click on a holiday favorites playlist, you’re asking for mental and emotional whiplash.
With little warning and no explanation, you’ll jump back and forth from “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to “Silent Night,” from “Blue Christmas” to “Joy to the World,” from “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” to “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
Christmas in American culture is a mishmash of distinctly Christian content and all sorts of accumulated traditions. I, for one, am mostly fine with that. But I do wonder if you’ve noticed one particular difference between old Christian carols and more recent popular songs. The old songs often refer to death. The new ones rarely do.
Death in Christmas Songs
Consider just a few examples:
O Come, O Come Emmanuel: “From depths of hell thy people save and give them victory o’er the grave. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight.”
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing: “Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die.”
Good Christian Men, Rejoice: “Now ye need not fear the grave: Peace! Peace! Jesus Christ was born to save.”
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming: “This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere. True man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves us and lightens every load.”
To celebrate Christmas, these old writers emphasized death. Their celebrations didn’t make sense without it. Today, to celebrate Christmas we avoid death altogether. Our celebrations can’t survive its challenge.
These differences in their songs and ours reflect major cultural shifts. Those old songs belong to places where death was visible everywhere. They didn’t have the freedom many of us have to avoid the subject.
To celebrate Christmas these old writers emphasized death. Their celebrations didn’t make sense without it. Today, to celebrate Christmas we avoid death altogether. Our celebrations can’t survive its challenge.
In America at the end of the 18th century, four out of five people died before the age of 70. Average life expectancy was late 30s. Now the average is nearly 80 years old. Back then most people died where they lived—in their homes, surrounded by their families and friends and neighbors. By 1980, only 17 percent of deaths occurred in the home, though that number is on the rise again, thanks to hospice care. The experience of death has shifted from a familiar event in a familiar place to an unfamiliar event in a sanitized, professionalized institution most people rarely visit.
And it’s not just that the experience of death has grown less familiar. The subject of death has also become taboo, often banished from polite conversation. Historian Philippe Aries calls this shift a “brutal revolution”: that death, “so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden” (85).
Why suppress talk about death? Aries argues this taboo comes from our viewing happiness as a kind of moral duty. We act as if we have a “social obligation to contribute to the collective happiness by avoiding any cause for sadness or boredom, by appearing to be always happy, even if in the depths of despair.” If happiness is a moral duty, grief is a moral failure. “By showing the least sign of sadness, one sins against happiness, threatens it, and society then risks losing its raison d’etre,” Aries writes.
The experience of death has shifted from a familiar event in a familiar place to an unfamiliar event in a sanitized, professionalized institution most people rarely visit.
If Aries is right about this duty to happiness, it makes sense why talk of death at Christmas would be less common than it once was. This sort of talk, much less any genuine grief over death’s effects, will seem in poor taste, or even anti-social—an imposition on those who just want to have a good time.
Living in Death’s Shadow
But try as we might to avoid the subject, every one of us experiences death’s shadow every day. It shows up in our insecurities about who we are and why we matter. It shows up in our dissatisfaction with the things we believe should make us happy. And it shows up in our pain over the loss of every good thing that doesn’t last long enough.
If happiness is a moral duty, grief is a moral failure.
But rather than talking honestly about these effects of death on life, we fire away at them with everything we can muster, including Christmas and all it’s become in American culture. And yet all our buying and baking, parties and presents, reminiscing on years gone by and hopes for the perfect holiday this year—all these things, good in themselves, are useless as a defense against death.
You could think of Christmas as a one-month barrage of self-medication that sounds eerily like the Preacher’s experiment in Ecclesiastes 2. “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself’ . . . And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure” (Eccl. 2:1, 10). He built and bought. He ate and drank. He reveled in entertainment and upbeat company. But in the end, faced with death, he found what we will always find too: “Behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11).
It should be no surprise that you often hear of the post-holiday blues. Store-bought happiness will never stand up to the truth about life in death’s shadow. No gifts given or received will overcome the insecurities death brings to our identity. No Christmas vacation will ease the frustration and futility death brings to our work. No sentimental song will soothe the pain of the separations death brings to our relationships. And we all wake up on New Year’s in bodies one year closer to the grave.
Rejoice that Christ Has Conquered Death
But there is another way to use this season, and the best old carols mark the path. We can use honesty about death to feed our joy in Christ’s promises—to bring those promises from the hazy clouds of some other world into the everyday problems of our world, where they belong.
Store-bought happiness will never stand up to the truth about life in death’s shadow. No gifts given or received will overcome the insecurities death brings to our identity.
When the old songs tied death to Christmas, they had good source material. I like the old King James translation of Isaiah 9, one of the clearest predictions of Christ’s coming: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isa. 9:2).
The light of Christ shines brightest where death casts its shadow. We don’t have to protect our Christmas celebrations from our fears, our frustrations, or our sorrows. So look closely at the truth. Be honest about your grief. And then rejoice. Emmanuel has come to you. He will come again.