Sometimes we rush to judgment of artworks that at first glance seem dull and conventional. We assume they have nothing to show us. But if we were to look more closely, we might find something unexpected. Even subtly subversive.
Such is the case with The Nativity and its companion piece, The King and the Shepherd, which were commissioned from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne-Jones in 1887 for the chancel of Saint John’s Church in Torquay, England. Seven by ten feet each, they hung on the north and south walls for just over a hundred years before being sold by the church in 1989 to pay for a new roof. (Copies were hung in their places.) Musical theater composer—and Victorian art collector!—Andrew Lloyd Webber bought them and, in 1997, donated them to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s where I saw them earlier this year.
The Nativity shows Mary reclining outdoors on a rustic bed that resembles a bier with her newborn son, Jesus, both wrapped in shroud-like garments. Her partner, Joseph, who has his cloaked back to the viewer, sits on the ground reading a manuscript in Gothic script; the text is indiscernible, but I presume it’s meant to be the scriptures that prophesy the birth of a savior or his sacrificial death. Three angels stand to the side holding symbols of the passion: a crown of thorns, a chalice, and a jar of myrrh, a traditional burial spice. The painting, therefore, links the entrance of Jesus onto the world stage to his ultimate saving act on the cross.
This foreshadowing approach was not new in Nativity art. But in addition to gesturing toward the redemption from sin that Jesus would bring, the painting also quotes from a community lament psalm in which God’s people cry out for deliverance from those in authority who lie and manipulate. Propter miseriam inopum et gemitum pauperis nunc exsurgam dicit Dominus, the Latin inscription reads, which translates, “Because of the misery of the poor and the groaning of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD” (Psalm 12:5a). When God’s people are oppressed, God is aroused to action, and Burne-Jones’s choice of this atypical scripture text for a Nativity painting reminds us of the sociopolitical context of Jesus’s birth, which involved Roman occupation of Israel and a despotic ruler so obsessed with power that he mandated the extermination of Jewish male babies in Bethlehem, thinking he would quash the threat of usurpation. This is the reality into which Jesus was born. And though he didn’t deliver Israel from Rome during his lifetime, he did launch a new “kingdom” and declare a jubilee (Luke 4:16–21).
The biblical inscription speaks not only to Jesus’s day but also to contemporary times, which were marked by high unemployment and great hardship among London’s working class. It’s “a subtle allusion to the social miseries of Victorian Britain,” says Louise Lippincott, curator for the Carnegie at the time of acquisition. She speculates that Burne-Jones intended the painting “as his public statement, albeit a muted one, on 19th-century social horrors. . . . It is quite likely that he was thinking of reports of the bestial living conditions of the London poor that were appearing in the press in the early 1880s.” In 1886, 1887, and 1888, as Burne-Jones was planning and executing the painting, violent strikes and riots were going on in London to protest economic inequality. As people starved, those in power continued to fatten themselves with apparent disregard. The incorporation into this humble scene of a divine vow from the Psalms, where God states his commitment to the poor, expresses hope that God will again arise to deliver from affliction those who trust in him.
The King and the Shepherd extends this critique of the wealth gap by showing the two titular figures—one rich, the other poor—approaching the Christ child as equals. As was and still is common, Burne-Jones combines Matthew’s account of the magi with Luke’s account of the shepherds, showing both as welcome participants in the same event, but uniquely, he chooses only one figure to represent each group. (Traditionally, three magi attend the birth, along with a nonstandard number of shepherds.) An angel leads each traveler by the hand, reminding them to keep their voices low so as not to wake the sleeping infant.
“The pairings visually suggest the equality, in the face of divinity, between the wealthy king and the humble peasant,” reads the museum wall text. “In the context of the enormous social inequalities rife in Victorian England, this message smacked of social and political radicalism.” The Latin inscription—Transeamus usque Bethleem et videamus hoc verbum quod factum est quod fecit Dominus [et ostendit nobis]—comes from the New Testament description of the journey of the shepherds. “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem,” they say, “and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us” (Luke 2:15b).
God chose to reveal his Son’s birth not only to bookish scholars or, as tradition has it, royalty, but also to a bunch of blue-collar laborers. The shepherds’ and kings’ mutual presence at Christ’s bedside was only the beginning of the reconciliation across lines of division that Christ came to enact.
ONLINE LECTURES, organized by Bridge Projects: This Los Angeles gallery is offering a series of free online events to complement A Composite Leviathan, an exhibition of emerging Chinese artists that runs through February 27, 2021. Here are two I RSVPed for. (Both will be presented in English and Chinese.)
“The Virgin Mother, Her Majesty, Our Lady: Globalism, All-Under-Heaven, and Madonna In-Between” by Dong Lihui, January 12, 8–9:30 p.m. EST: Dong Lihui (PhD, art history), whose research centers on art exchange between East and West, is the author of Chinese Translation of Western Images: Christian Art in China in the 16th and 17th century. In this talk she will discuss the hybridization of European globalism and the Chinese “all-under-heaven” worldview as observed in Chinese Madonna icons made between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.
“Counterculture: Chinese Contemporary Christian Art and the Bible” by Clover Xuesong Zhou, January 26,8–9:30 p.m. EST: “The advent of modernity brought with it enmity between Christian traditions and a newly liberated art world. Similarly, contemporary artists in China found themselves at odds with the government beginning in the 1980s. All the while, Christianity has had a torrid relationship with Chinese government and culture. Thus, Chinese artists who are also practicing Christians work within these complex intersections.” Art writer and art theologian Clover Xuesong Zhou will be discussing some such artists, including photographer Feng Junlan, video artist Li Ran, and installation artist Gao Lei.
SONG: “O Holy Night” by Ben Caplan and friends: An absolutely stunning minor-key rendition by Canadian singer-songwriter Ben Caplan (who is often compared to Leonard Cohen) and a team of others, combining gypsy jazz, classical, and Jewish folksong influences. Caplan, who is Jewish, didn’t grow up listening to much Christmas music. “I have to admit that I find a lot of that music a bit corny. Where is that minor fall? Where is the major lift? Where is the bafflement?” He continues, “I have a deep felt belief that if you don’t like something, you should do something about it. It’s not enough to complain from the sidelines! There are some truly beautiful songs and carols out there, and I wanted to make something that tip-toes towards the sublime rather than shopping-mall-easy-listening.” Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” was one of his reference points. (“I wanted to try to recreate that gradual build, and the sublime surrender to an enormous scale of sound.”) There are a few intentional semitone clashes to generate dissonance.
Filmed last year inside Halifax’s Fort Massey United Church and released in November, this recording was in the making for four years and is the result of much collaboration. The left-handed violinist in the video, Donald MacLennan (see, e.g., 1:34), reharmonized the carol, and he, Caplan, upright bass player Anna Ruddick, drummer Jamie Kronick, and vocalist Taryn Kawaja worked out an arrangement for their band, which they performed at a Christmas concert in 2016. Peter-Anthony Togni, who plays organ for the song, was brought in later to arrange the song for string quartet, pipe organ, and bass clarinet. Caplan chose the instrumentation and aesthetic shape. He recounts the process in detail and names all the people involved on his Bandcamp page. “I want to dispel the myth of the lone genius,” he says. “It took a lot of people with a lot of talent to pull this off. I am just the lead singer, and the guy who was stubborn enough to bring all the people together and spend an outlandish amount of money trying to achieve this vision.” Purchase on Bandcamp, and/or stream on Spotify.
I am truly moved by this atmospheric take on an old classic, which perfectly brings together the darkness and light of the Christmas season. “Original, and righteous—hymn for the COVID time,” says one YouTube user. “You’ve found things in this old carol that I never knew existed,” says another. And another: “A sensory feast. So deeply piercing.”
“Mele Kalikimaka” (“Merry Christmas”) is a Hawaiian-themed song written in 1949 by R. Alex Anderson. Born in Honolulu in 1894, Anderson, a Caucasian, became one of the most popular composers in the hapa haole (“half-white”) genre, which describes music with a Hawaiian tune, styling, and/or subject matter but lyrics that are mostly or entirely in English. Over his long career Anderson composed nearly two hundred songs, several of which became popular standards, and he was posthumously inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 1998. “His ear for Hawaiian music’s special sound and rhythm was exceptional,” the HMHF wrote, “and he was regarded as a successor to Charles E. King in maintaining the melodic and lyrical qualities which are Hawaii’s musical identity.”
In a 1994 interview, shot just a year before his death at age 100, Anderson said he was inspired to write “Mele Kalikimaka” when a coworker lamented to him one day that there were no original Hawaiian Christmas songs; all that existed were Hawaiian translations of carols from other countries.
So he got to writing:
Jingle bells upon a steel guitar Through the palms we see the same bright star
“Mele Kalikimaka” is the thing to say On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day That’s the island greeting that we send to you From the land where palm trees sway Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night “Mele Kalikimaka” is Hawaii’s way To say “Merry Christmas” to you
A year later, in 1950, the song appeared on the flip side of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas album, featuring the Andrews Sisters.
Since then it has been covered by a range of artists, including the Monkees, Bette Midler, Jimmy Buffett, Train, Teresa Carpio, Ingrid Michaelson, She & Him, the Puppini Sisters, the Petersens, Leslie Odom Jr., and others. I especially like the playful version performed by married couple Gianni Nicassio and Sarah Blackwood of the Canadian indie-pop band Walk Off the Earth. They do vocals, ukulele, guitar, djembe, chimes, cymbals, and kazoo! The song can be purchased here.
In the same decade that Bing Crosby catapulted Anderson’s Hawaiian Christmas song to nationwide popularity, painter Juliette May Fraser carried out a mural commission for the newly built St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in Kapa‘a, Kauai, commonly referred to as Hawaiian Nativity. Covering the makai (sea-facing) wall, it shows Hawaiians of various ethnicities presenting ho‘okupu (gifts) to the newborn Christ child, who sits on his mother’s lap.
Fraser is of Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, and Irish ancestry, and this multiculturalism is reflected in her Nativity. She wanted the painting to be modern and “international in flavor,” she said, reflecting Hawaii’s ethnic diversity.
Instead of a donkey, a jeep has brought the holy couple, who are portrayed as Native Hawaiian, to the place of their son’s birth. The license plate reads, “4-20-58,” the date on which St. Catherine’s was dedicated. Mary wears a muumuu and lei, while Joseph stands behind her with a sugar cane stalk. “The Holy Child is hapa [mixed race] with blond hair and strong Polynesian features,” writes Anthony Sommer in the 1999 article for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that introduced me to this painting. That Jesus’s skin tone is the lightest of the bunch might be regarded by some as problematic, a subtle reinforcer of racial hierarchy. However, I see this more as the artist’s attempt, whether you deem it successful or not, to show a multiracial Christ, bearing the features of different peoples.
In Fraser’s fresco, locals approach with ho‘okupu, the fruits of their personal labors given freely as offerings in expression of gratitude, respect, and aloha. Filipino fishermen present their freshest catch, and Portuguese goatherds (as the artist identified them) come with their flocks; they are greeted by a Chinese angel in a T-shirt, jeans, a sideways ballcap, and flip-flops. From the right, a Hawaiian ali‘i (hereditary noble) comes with the gift of an ʻahu ʻula (feathered cloak), made only for royalty. He stands in line behind a child who offers Jesus a lei (flower garland). Traditionally, ho‘okupu are given to an akua (god), king, priest, doctor, or host, so this painting acknowledges Jesus as fulfilling all those roles.
The photo here, by Timothy T. De La Vega, was taken prior to the 2001–2 restoration; he emailed it to me when I reached out to him. I’ve sought out more recent photos through multiple channels—the church office, the parish Facebook page, a priest in the diocese, the restoration fundraiser—but have not had any success.
St. Catherine’s also houses frescoes by two other celebrated Hawaii artists: Compassionate Christ by Jean Charlot and Francis Xavier, Apostle of Asia by Tseng Yo Ho. Charlot, Tseng, and Fraser were hired by Father John McDonald—who (fun fact) was also the one who convinced movie producers to cast St. Catherine’s choir in the movies South Pacific and Blue Hawaii!
DIGITAL EXPERIENCE: “Holy Night: The Christmas Story and Its Imagery”: This “Digitorial”—a responsive, multimedia, educative webpage—was created as a supplement to a physical exhibition at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt that ran from October 12, 2016, to January 29, 2017, which brought together over one hundred paintings, sculptures, and other precious objects, mostly from medieval Germany, to tell the story of Jesus’s birth. Featured online are a magnificent Rhenish tapestry (seriously, click that link and zoom in!), an ivory relief carving, an altar, a wooden statuette of Mary with a removable flap on her belly that reveals the Christ child, a liturgical cradle and doll, a manuscript illumination, a woodcut, and more. Also included, for listening, are readings from the Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden (a fourteenth-century mystic whose vision of the nativity had widespread influence) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (source of the legend of the miraculous palm tree on the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt), as well as a lullaby from a medieval mystery play at Leipzig and perhaps also sung as part of the custom of Kindleinwiegen. Curator Stefan Roller introduces the exhibition in this video:
The “Holy Night” Digitorial is written for a middle-grade reading level, I’d say; some of the narration seems geared toward kids. It doesn’t assume any knowledge of the Nativity story, and in addition to highlights from the biblical accounts, it mentions some apocryphal story elements, like Joseph’s backstory, the midwives at the birth, the palm tree and wheatfield miracles, and the identity of the “kings.” I appreciate how it covers the full story, including Jesus’s circumcision and the flight to Egypt. My only two wishes are that the images were provided in higher resolution and that full credits (especially the collection these objects are from) were given at the bottom.
I really love the Digitorial format! It’s engaging. If I could afford it, I would endeavor to hire web designers to help me produce products like this. This one was designed and developed by Scholz & Volkmer with funding by the Aventis Foundation. More about Digitorials: “Digitorials are short, interactive, online editorials that combine text, images and animations into a meaningful whole and enable innovative storytelling. Digitorials are not intended to replicate or replace physical exhibitions. Rather, they are a useful way of adding breadth and depth, and are usually used before or after visiting an exhibition. The format was developed by the Städel Museum, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung and Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and is breaking new ground in art mediation, as it uses digital technology to offer an accessible and approachable way of engaging with art. It has already been awarded the Grimme-Preis.” See other examples: https://www.staedelmuseum.de/en/digitorial; https://www.liebieghaus.de/de/angebote/digitorial; https://www.schirn.de/en/program/offerings/digitorial/.
“Jeg Synger Julekvad” (In dulci jubilo): This Christmas hymn of German origin often appears in English-language hymnals as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!” or the gender-neutral “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice!” This jazz arrangement by Heidi Skjerve, with Norwegian lyrics by Magnus Brostrup Landstad, is performed by Skjerve (she’s the vocalist on the left) and students from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Music [previously]. The other two vocalists are Liv Ellen Rønning and Jakob Leirvik. See the full list of musicians in the YouTube description. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“Carol of the Bells,” arr. Al White, performed by the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble: Al White, who taught Appalachian instruments at Berea College in Kentucky until retiring in May, founded the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble in fall 1999 to give students with backgrounds or potential in bluegrass music an opportunity to play in a bluegrass band with weekly rehearsals, performances, and travel. This is one of the many arrangements he wrote—sometime around 2008. In this 2016 video, recorded inside Berea’s Danforth Chapel and outdoors, White plays mandolin and leads four other musicians: Brenna Macmillan on banjo and vocals and Theo Macmillan on fiddle (the two are siblings, now performing and recording as the Theo & Brenna Band), Matt Parsons on guitar, and Casey Papendieck on upright bass (he’s part of the Handshake Deals). As of this fall, the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble is under the direction of Sam Gleaves. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“Peace Upon the Earth” by Hillsong Worship: Since being introduced to Chopin by my piano teacher as a kid, he’s been one of my favorite composers to play—his etudes, nocturnes, waltzes, fantasias. In this 2017 song from Hillsong’s Christmas: The Peace Project, Marty Sampson wrote lyrics for Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major (op. 9, no. 2), which actually works really well! It’s a beautiful handling of the iconic melody. Starting at 3:44, Sampson talks about his songwriting process. He says he was inspired by “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which came about when William Hayman Cummings adapted the melody of “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen,” a song from Mendelssohn’s secular “Gutenberg Cantata,” to fit Charles Wesley’s hymn text.
NEW ACQUISITIONS: “2 Armenian Manuscripts Join the Getty Collection”: This year the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired, among other art objects, (1) a detached leaf with a full-page Nativity illumination from a seventeenth-century Armenian Gospel-book, and (2) a sixteenth-century Armenian Gospel-book illuminated by a brother and sister team, Ghoukas and Eghisabet. (A female illuminator named in an early modern manuscript—woot woot!) “Little is known about the involvement of women in the trade of manuscript illumination, but we hope that highlighting figures like Eghisabet will spark further research and understanding about their role,” write Elizabeth Morrison and Nava Streiter in this Getty blog post.
Ms. 119 is now the third Armenian Gospel-book in the museum’s collection, and Morrison and Streiter compare one of the illumination subjects side-by-side across all three books—in addition to providing visual comparisons with Ethiopian and Byzantine Gospel-books.
There has fallen on earth for a token A god too great for the sky. He has burst out of all things and broken The bounds of eternity: Into time and the terminal land He has strayed like a thief or a lover, For the wine of the world brims over, Its splendor is spilt on the sand.
Who is proud when the heavens are humble, Who mounts if the mountains fall, If the fixed stars topple and tumble And a deluge of love drowns all— Who rears up his head for a crown, Who holds up his will for a warrant, Who strives with the starry torrent, When all that is good goes down?
For in dread of such falling and failing The fallen angels fell Inverted in insolence, scaling The hanging mountain of hell: But unmeasured of plummet and rod Too deep for their sight to scan, Outrushing the fall of man Is the height of the fall of God.
Glory to God in the Lowest The spout of the stars in spate— Where the thunderbolt thinks to be slowest And the lightning fears to be late: As men dive for a sunken gem Pursuing, we hunt and hound it, The fallen star that has found it In the cavern of Bethlehem.
“Gloria in Profundis” (Latin for “Glory in the Depths”) by G. K. Chesterton is the fifth poem in the Ariel Poems series of pamphlets, published by Faber and Gwyer for the Christmas gift market from 1927 to 1931. It was reprinted in the posthumous Chesterton compilation The Spirit of Christmas: Stories, Poems, Essays(Dodd, Mead, 1985).
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953) was a pioneering American folk music specialist who selected, transcribed, and placed songs from the vast collections of the Lomax family and others into published works for use in primary schools and homes. Her mission was, in her own words, “to give back to the people songs that belong to them.” 
A conservatory-trained musician and budding modernist composer who spent a Guggenheim year in Europe, Ruth shifted her career goals in 1936 when a move to Washington, DC, brought her into proximity of the Archive of American Folk Song and ignited her passion for the homespun music of her own country. Work songs, love songs, prison songs, dance songs, hollers, chants, spirituals, blues, Cajun tunes, ballads with archaic tonal textures—all these and more were preserved on hundreds of aluminum and acetate disks or magnetic tape and wire at the initiative of traveling ethnomusicologists but at the time were mostly unknown outside the small communities of which they were a part.
Her relocation to the nation’s capital was prompted by her music scholar husband Charles Seeger’s being hired onto the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Music Project, a New Deal program to employ musicians, conductors, and composers during the Great Depression and to promote music appreciation and training. Charles’s job was to set up music recreation programs across the US—to get every American singing, playing an instrument, or both. Ruth absorbed his enthusiasm and through his work came to know the folk song collectors John A. Lomax and his son, Alan, who frequently brought folk singers from their recording sessions at the Library of Congress to evening singing sessions and instrumental jams at the Seegers’s Silver Spring, Maryland, home. 
Ruth began transcribing and arranging some of the music she was hearing from guests and at traditional music festivals, and John Lomax took notice, enlisting her transcription expertise for two publication projects. She spent many hours at an Ansley turntable, notating texts, melodies, and rhythms so that the musical treasures created and sung in various pockets of the country and collected by her colleagues could be available in print for children’s education and home entertainment, deepening American cultural awareness and celebration.
Ruth keenly felt an urgency to save American folk songs from extinction. Toiling deep in the archives of the Library of Congress alongside the famed father, son, and daughter musicologist team of John Avery Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Bess Lomax Hawes, she sifted through their 10,000 field recordings of native singers and transcribed songs. She helped the Lomaxes produce two sweeping surveys of “people’s music,” Our Singing Country (1941) and Best Loved American Folk Songs (1947), creating notated versions for over 300 folk songs (the second anthology with the help of both her husband Charles Seeger and her stepson Pete Seeger). Fluent in both languages of music, formal and primitive, she moved easily from avant-garde elite to New Deal populist and became the bridge between modern urban and rural traditional music. . . .
American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953) was Ruth Crawford Seeger’s third songbook in a trilogy of inspired generosity: American Folk Songs for Children (1948) and Animal Folk Songs for Children (1950), in addition to an earlier book of piano arrangements, Twenty-Two American Folk Tunes (1937). Tragically, her life was cut short when she died of cancer the very same year this Christmas anthology was published. But Ruth raised her children Mike, Peggy, Penny, and stepson Pete with such a powerful passion for and knowledge of traditional musical forms, few would dispute that the American folk revival started on her knee. 
Of all the contributions of Ruth Crawford Seeger, I’m perhaps most grateful for her American Folk Songs for Christmas (Doubleday, 1953; Loomis House, 2013), a book of simple piano arrangements of Christmas or Christmas-adjacent songs from the American English-speaking folk tradition. Direct expressions from everyday people, these fifty-five songs—and one fiddle tune!—were not widely known until Ruth compiled and arranged them for mass publication. Thirteen of them she transcribed from traditional recordings in the Library of Congress, while the others come from folklore journals and collections, shape-note hymnals, and from singers themselves. Ruth hoped this songbook would “supplement the already rich international store of traditional Christmas song,”  expanding schoolkids’ and families’ usual Christmas repertoire to include some of these homegrown gems.
Although at least half the selections will still be unfamiliar to the general public, several have become beloved classics, especially some of the African American spirituals, like “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” and “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow.” While Ruth wasn’t the only one drawing attention to these songs—the lengthy Acknowledgments section cites the publisher, society, institution, and/or individual each song was sourced from—she was certainly an important popularizer.
One of my favorites is “Baby Born Today,” a “shout” song from McIntosh County, Georgia, that was traditionally sung at Watch Night services at Black churches on Christmas Eve, sung back and forth from leader to group for a long time.  Folklorist Robert W. Gordon learned it from Mary C. Mann, a deaconess in the Episcopal Church, when doing field recordings in Darien in 1926.
Another African American Christmas spiritual is “Sing Hallelu,” which is from St. Helena Island, South Carolina. It’s sung here by Elizabeth Mitchell and her husband, Daniel Littleton, accompanied on harp by Elizabeth Clark-Jerez.
Found on Port Royal Island, South Carolina, in 1861, where it was in current use, “Heard from Heaven Today” was reported to be sung regularly in church by the entire congregation with a swaying bodily movement, rhythmical tapping of hands and feet, head nodding, and so forth. It was first published in Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison (1867). It’s on neither the Seeger Sisters’ nor the Mitchell album, but there’s a nice recording by Nowell Sing We Clear:
Ruth Crawford Seeger’s transcription of “January, February (Last Month of the Year),” aka “When Was Jesus Born,” is based on a 1939 field recording of Betty May Bowman and a group of African American women prisoners from the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi. (Other field recordings of the song from the late thirties and early forties are from Alabama and Georgia, so it was relatively common throughout the South.) It has since been widely covered by gospel artists, including the Fairfield Four, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Staples Singers, and Liz McComb. The recording for The Sounding Joy features Amy Helm on lead vocals, as in this video:
Of course the precise date of Jesus’s birth is not known, but dating forward nine months from the feast of the Annunciation, it came to be celebrated in the West on December 25. Out of overconcern for the song’s questionable declaration that Jesus was born “on the last month of the year . . . on the twenty-fifth day of December,” some Christians have chosen to scrap the song, which is a shame, because I see it simply as an acknowledgment of this very special event on our calendars that we commemorate each year at the same time. We need not be so literalistic.
American Folk Songs for Christmas, the songbook, contains eight shape-note, aka “sacred harp,” songs, a distinctively American brand of sacred choral music that originated in New England and was later carried on in the southern United States. These are less improvisatory, more set. The text of “Cradle Hymn” is actually by the great English hymn-writer Isaac Watts, which appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835) with the Kentucky folk tune RESTORATION. It’s a lullaby that gently contrasts the comfort and security of one’s own child with the poverty of the infant Jesus.
Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber; Holy angels guard Thy bed; Heav’nly blessings without number Gently falling on thy head.
How much better thou’rt tended Than the Son of God could be, When from heaven He descended, And became a child like thee.
Soft and easy is thy cradle, Coarse and hard thy Savior lay, When His birthplace was a stable, And His softest bed the hay.
Despite the book’s title, some of the songs have no direct link to Christmas and are more generically about God’s provision or shepherding or about nature (e.g., “Oh, Watch the Stars”). Some seem to me to be about death, like the lovely “In the morning when I rise, (I’m gonna) tell my Jesus howdy-o” and the widely recorded Appalachian spiritual whose first verse is “Bright morning stars are rising . . . day is a-breaking in my soul.” “Shine Like a Star in the Morning,” too, joyfully anticipates heaven.
The songbook—both the original edition and the reissue—is illustrated by two-time Caldecott Medal winner Barbara Cooney. The illustrations are in black-and-white, and unfortunately all the figures, save for a few in a procession of children on one of the page spreads, respectfully drawn, are Anglo American, despite the collection’s strongest songs being from Black America. I don’t think this should detract from the usefulness of the resource, but I mention it for those who are sensitive to issues of representation.
On a related note, I will just add, for clarification, that these songs are from Anglo and African American traditions. There are other ethnic groups and peoples and communities in America who have been making Christmas music for a long time but are not represented in this collection, and that is largely because it is intentionally restricted to English-language songs—a sensible choice, I think, and still an immensely rich store. Keep in mind that the songbook is from 1953, and it does not claim to be comprehensive. But as America continues to become even more multicultural, I find that caveats are in order, as it’s not entirely clear from the book’s marketing.
These traditional American carols from before the commercialization of Christmas are part of a national heritage of folk song. Many have been passed down orally for generations, others had been written out, and each time they’re shared they’re reinterpreted, but they still retain their original integrity. “The most important mission of the Library of Congress is to cultivate and sustain an American Memory,” writes folklorist Carl Lindahl , and thanks in part to Ruth Crawford Seeger, a good number of the folk songs in its archive have been rescued from obscurity and brought back into use. These Christmas songs are still lesser known than those of European origin, but I’ve seen some integrated into playlists, hymnals, caroling excursions, concerts, and children’s pageants and am encouraged!
Ruth Crawford Seeger, American Folk Songs for Christmas (New York: Doubleday, 1953; Northfield, Minnesota: Loomis House, 2013), 7.
Natalie Merchant, from the liner notes to The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs in and out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook by Elizabeth Mitchell and friends (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkway Recordings, 2013), 10–11.
Crawford Seeger, 7.
Watch Night is one of several old-time American Christmas traditions Ruth describes in her introduction to the songbook, along with mumming in Boston, fireworks in the South and West, wild-turkey shoots in Texas, and so on.
Carl Lindahl, ed. American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress, 2 vols. (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2004), xxiii.
PANEL DISCUSSION: “Religious Art,” organized by the Forum for Philosophy: I posted about this live online event a month ago, and now that it’s passed, I want to share the video recording. Theologian Ben Quash (King’s College, London), curator Lieke Wijnia (Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht), and art historian Mehreen Chida-Razvi (Khalili Collections, London) discuss the relationship between art and religion, how art can function within religious practice, how to exhibit religious art in a museum, and artworks as sites of conversation across religious traditions.
In reference to Hadzi-Vasileva’s canopy of pig’s caul fat, Quash says that challenge or provocation can be a meaningful thing to happen in a religious context:
Works that ambush you are also religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward of your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does, it seems to me. It should actually want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should—it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are. So there’s a role for these sorts of artworks within religion as well as outside it.
Chida-Razvi shares slides of Islamic architectural spaces, devotional objects, and manuscript illuminations, including a Mughal painting that exemplifies the interfaith dialogue going on at the court of Akbar in Lahore, and Wijnia shares her experience curating objects people pray with for museum display and (forthcoming) an exhibition on Mary Magdalene. Such great content!
“He Comes,” words by Kate Bluett, music by Paul Zach: A lovely new Advent hymn, performed here by Paul Zach.
“The Heavens Shake” by Reindeer Tribe:Reindeer Tribe is a group of friends based in Los Angeles who get together each year to make a live Christmas album, a mix of originals and traditional, sometimes retuned, carols. They bring their voices, instruments, and arrangements and jam together for a long weekend in a big living room. (COVID-19 put the kibosh on this year’s gathering.) This original song, perfect for Advent, is on their 2014 album, A Great Light. “For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth . . .” (Haggai 2:6).
ARTICLE: “We don’t need to be afraid of the Christmas tree’s pagan roots” by Damian Costello, America: Dr. Damian Costello specializes in the intersection of Catholic theology, Indigenous spiritual traditions, and colonial history. In this article he considers how the Christmas tree pictures Christ as the new Yggdrasil (the giant ash tree at the center of the Norse cosmos), and the spiritual character of nature. The second half—about “the hidden agency of trees”—stretches my categories for sure, and I wonder if it’s a bit overwrought, but I’m intrigued by the links Costello draws between the Psalms, Anishinaabe spirituality, and the theology of Catholic saint John Henry Newman. The article reminds me of Luci Shaw’s poem “Perfect Christmas Tree.”
FILM: The Nativity (2010), written and directed by Tony Jordan: I’m always skeptical of film adaptations of the Bible because so many are poorly done. But I gave this four-part BBC miniseries (streaming on Amazon Prime) a shot, and, other than a really cheesy moment during the birthing scene, I thought it was quite good! Writer-director Tony Jordan is not a Christian but approaches the story with the reverent curiosity of a dramatist. He said he never connected with the nativity story until he worked on this project and started to see the very real humans beneath the auras tradition has given the “holy couple”—he saw their earthiness and complexity and began to imagine their emotional lives, especially their reactions to the disruptions they encountered. He said the relationship between Mary and Joseph was key to him. Many storytellers assume that because the marriage was arranged (or because, according to apocryphal sources, Joseph was an old man), there was no passion in their relationship, that they were bound together more by duty than by love, but Jordan, without overly romanticizing, imagines otherwise. The warmth between Mary and Joseph in the first half, which they have to work to regain after news of Mary’s pregnancy hits Joseph like a ton of bricks, is a hallmark of the movie.
Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is probably my favorite Mary I’ve seen onscreen. (I also like Andrew Buchan [Broadchurch] as Joseph.) Jordan says most people see Mary as “a one-dimensional character with a halo round her head,” but actually, “she’s not saccharine. Just a nice kid—real but fallible.” He shows her as virtuous but not a goody-goody, fun-loving and confused and scared and courageous all at once, stepping into her new role by faith without seeing the full picture and even discipling Joseph into that faith. Maslany plays the part brilliantly, endearingly. The film addresses the isolation Mary felt, being rejected not only by her fiancé at first but also by the synagogue leadership and disbelieved, too, by the community she had grown up in. I’ve seen many actors portray Mary as detached, transcending all her difficult circumstances with calm, unshaken resolve. This Mary, by contrast, experiences hurt and fear and yet endures, which, I suspect, is closer to the historical reality. This in no way undermines her faith.
I was delighted by the Annunciation scene, where Gabriel comes to Mary as an ordinary man, much like the angels who visited Abraham generations earlier. He is not wearing ermine or carrying a scepter or standing on a rock above Mary with a booming voice and a heavenly glow. He’s simply a stranger who startles her, even more so when he relays his news. He speaks gently, colloquially. The moment of conception is portrayed as sudden and visceral; Mary feels Light enter her and reacts with a sort of joyful shock.
The trailer and posters, I will say, make the film seem pretty conventional. It does follow some conventions, but it’s also fresh, and while it has some flaws, I think it’s a very worthy use of two hours—it brings this ancient story to life in compelling ways.
In anticipation of the liturgical season of Christmas, I’ve created an extensive playlist of hymns, carols, and spirituals—old and new—that celebrate God’s being born in human flesh. Listen to “Christmastide: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.
The narratives of Jesus’s birth that we find in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke include both bursts of joyful exuberance, as with the angelic choir above a field of sheep, and quieter, more contemplative moments, such as when Mary pondered “all these things” in her heart (Luke 2:19). Jesus was born into darkness, so the story also involves social stigma, deprivation, military occupation, political greed, infanticide, asylum seeking—and the twinge of a future cross. So while the overall tone of this playlist is one of merriment, it does not shy away from some of the decidedly unfestive aspects of the first Christmas. And yet that God, in love, made himself vulnerable to suffering is precisely what makes the incarnation so glorious. He is not distant from human pains and woes but, rather, right in the midst of them, having experienced them firsthand.
The song selections reflect my personal taste for indie folk and newgrass, so they include, for instance, the Oh Hellos, Sufjan Stevens, Wilder Adkins, Branches, Beta Radio, the Brilliance, Lowland Hum, Penny and Sparrow, the Lower Lights, the Walking Roots Band, Folk Hymnal, Steve Thorngate, Sam P. Bush, Found Wandering, Ordinary Time, and Garrett Viggers.
Gospel songs performed by artists like Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Isaac Cates, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Evelyn Simpson-Curenton, and Liz McComb also make an appearance, as do many African American spirituals, sung by Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Mitchell, and others. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is the most widely known from that repertoire.
Also from America is the eighteenth-century carol “O Sight of Anguish” by Samson Occom, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Mohegan nation. New England roots musician Tim Eriksen sings it a cappella on Every Sound Below, but in this outdoor video he plays it on bajo sexto:
(Oh how I wish Ericksen’s marvelous Star in the East album were on Spotify, which features thirteen more songs in this vein!)
The Carols for a Cure album series, made up of contributions from Broadway casts, adds some theatricality. The cast of Nine, for example, sings “Los Peces en el Río,” a traditional Spanish carol in which Mary goes about her daily tasks—combing her tangled hair, washing Jesus’s diapers—as the fish in the river swim excitedly toward the newborn Savior. It’s sung by Antonio Banderas.
In addition to this and the twelfth-century “Friendly Beasts,” another song that focuses on the animal characters at the nativity is the punchy “A Stick, a Carrot, and a String” by mewithoutYou, which sounds like it belongs on the Juno soundtrack. It’s wonderfully quirky.
Of course the Christmas playlist includes tons of classics—“Joy to the World!,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Silent Night,” and so on—multiple renditions, in fact. (It’s too hard to choose just one!) There’s an upbeat swing arrangement of “O Holy Night,” but there’s also a more subdued, ethereal arrangement by Katie Melua, and several more besides. It’s fun to see how different artists interpret the same song.
The Irish folk rock band Rend Collective gives us a raucous arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” retaining some of the archaicisms in the original lyrics but rewriting verse 3. A competing team at One Way UK’s 2017 Puppet and Creative Ministry Festival in Rugby, Warwickshire, used this song as the basis of a super-entertaining puppet performance! This made me smile.
You may be wondering, “Where’s all the choral music?!” While I do enjoy that genre, especially at Christmas, I’ve decided to exclude such songs in this list (1) to prevent it from becoming too unwieldy and (2) because I have to do a lot more searching and comparison to find the best recordings.
(Update, April 2022: I’ve decided to add several dozen choral selections to the playlist! While I considered creating a separate list of Christmas choral music, I’ve decided that I prefer an integrated approach, which is also why I scattered such songs throughout, giving some stylistic variety to those who prefer to listen to the playlist in order. My hope is that those who don’t normally go seeking out this genre will be surprised to find pieces that resonate with them.)
PHOTO ESSAY:“Advent 2020: Comfort My People”: Community development and relief worker Kezia M’Clelland, a child protection in emergencies specialist, works in areas of disaster and conflict. Every December she compiles a set of news photographs published in The Guardian that year, pairing each with an Advent scripture. (I introduced her in a 2017 Advent roundup.) Text and image amplify each other and prompt deeper reflection on the themes of the season as well as an awakening to global crises and/or injustices. The photos in this year’s compilation include a schoolteacher bringing plastic-wrapped hugs to her quarantined students in Rio de Janeiro, flooded roadways in Honduras following Hurricane Eta, a Syrian family from Ariha breaking their Ramadan fast amid the rubble of their home, a Palestinian boy from the Khan Younis refugee camp standing on a pile of scrapped car parts, the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in August (caused by improperly stored ammonium nitrate), a protester outside Dallas City Hall in the US insisting that all citizens’ presidential election votes be counted, and others.
M’Clelland adds one new photo for each day of Advent and then releases them all in video slideshow form on December 24. Here are her photo compilations from 2019 (“Good News of Great Joy”) and 2018 (“Peace on Earth”):
SONG: “He Who Made the Starry Skies”: For optimal acoustics, three Bruderhof women from the Fox Hill Community in Walden, New York, trek on over to a silo to sing a fifteenth-century processional carol written by the nuns of St. Mary’s, Chester, in England, a medieval nunnery of which nothing now survives. Both the words and music have been preserved in a ca. 1425 manuscript known as The Chester Mysteries. The original is in Latin (and is titled “Qui creavit coelum”), but singers Alina McPherson, Melinda Goodwin, and Coretta Marchant opt for an English translation. I am providing the sheet music here, courtesy of the Bruderhof Historical Archives. [HT: Tamara Hill Murphy]
He who made the starry skies (Lully, lully, lu) Sleeping in a manger lies (Lully, lully, lu) Ruler of all centuries (Lully, lully, lu)
Joseph brings the swaddling clothes (Lully, lully, lu) Mary wraps the babe so mild (Lully, lully, lu) In the manger puts the child (Lully, lully, lu)
Humbly clad, the King of kings (Lully, lully, lu) Joy of heav’n to earth now brings (Lully, lully, lu) Sweet above all earthly things (Lully, lully, lu)
Mary, ask thy little son (Lully, lully, lu) That he give us of his joy (Lully, lully, lu) Now and through eternity (Lully, lully, lu)
The Bruderhof is an Anabaptist Christian movement of more than three thousand people committed to peacemaking, common ownership, and proclamation of the gospel. They have twenty-eight settlements on four continents, made up of families and singles. Perhaps you know them through their publishing house, Plough. Their website reads, “Love your neighbor. Take care of each other. Share everything. Especially in these challenging times, we at the Bruderhof believe that another way of life is possible. We’re not perfect people, but we’re willing to venture everything to build a life where there are no rich or poor. Where everyone is cared for, everyone belongs, and everyone can contribute. We’re pooling all our income, talents, and energy to take care of one another and to reach out to others. We believe that God wants to transform our world, here and now. This takes a life of discipleship, sacrifice and commitment; but when you truly love your neighbor as yourself, peace and justice become a reality. Isn’t that what Jesus came to bring for everyone?”
UPCOMING (ONLINE) CHRISTMAS CONCERTS:
“A Family Holiday Singalong with Dan and Claudia Zanes,”Tuesday, December 15, 6 p.m. EST: Presented by the Lebanon Opera House in New Hampshire, this multicultural concert will feature Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year’s songs from France, Wales, Germany, America, Puerto Rico, Korea, Tunisia, and Haiti. You can download the set list, which includes lyrics and chords, at the registration link I’ve posted. Dan and Claudia Zanes are a musical couple from Baltimore (my neck of the woods!), and I’ve really enjoyed the daily song videos they’ve been releasing on YouTube since COVID started. Here they are in 2018 with Pauline Jean, singing “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Hanukkah song written by Flory Jagoda in the 1980s in the Judeo-Spanish language known as Ladino. (Update: Concert video available here.)
ARTICLE: “Making Space for a Multicultural Christmas” by Michelle Reyes: “How can each of us celebrate Christmas at the intersection of our faith and our culture, while welcoming differing cultural perspectives on Christ’s birth?” asks Dr. Michelle Reyes, VP of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and editorial director of Pax, in this Gospel Coalition article. She briefly discusses four different cultural traditions that highlight unique aspects of Jesus’s birth narrative: posadas in Central America, Kiahk in Egypt, parols (star-shaped lanterns) in the Philippines, and Día de los Reyes [previously] in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and other Hispanic countries.
PODCAST EPISODE: “God’s Global Family,” BibleProject:BibleProject, a nonprofit ed-tech organization and animation studio, produces one of my favorite podcasts, hosted by biblical scholar Tim Mackie and Jon Collins. (I found episodes 6–11 of their recently wrapped “Character of God” series, on the wrath of God, particularly illuminating.) “Family of God” is the name of the series they’re in now. In this first episode they discuss how Christianity is the most multiethnic religious movement in history, and how our humanity cannot be fully realized without understanding, appreciating, and being connected to the identity of every other culture. I link to it here because it dovetails nicely with the Reyes article and because I want to introduce you to the podcast, if you’re not already familiar with it, but also because Mackie spends time talking about the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, with its many culturally specific portrayals of Mary and Jesus from around the world.
As you know, diversity in biblical imagery, especially images of Jesus, is important to me, so I was delighted to hear this popular podcast tip their hat to this pilgrimage site in Israel that features a range of visual interpretations of the incarnation. You can view a compilation of the church’s national mosaics at BibleWalks.com. Most of them are not of high artistic quality, but I appreciate the initiative of inviting the nations to contribute their own localized representations. Above, I posted three that I particularly like.
DANCE:“Ave Maria”:Queensland Ballet dancers Victor Estévez and Mia Heathcote perform a pas de deux (ballet duet) to the Schubert melody that today is most associated with the prayer “Ave Maria,” which begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” These are the words the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary when he came to announce that she would bear in her body the Son of God. Though I can’t say what this duo had in mind when they choreographed the piece, I can’t help but think, given the music choice, of the Annunciation—the Divine coming to dance with humanity, to partner with her for the redemption of the world. The dancing starts thirty-five seconds in.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “Embodied Joy, Serious Joy: Making Room in the Body and Life for New Creation” by Alexandra Davison: I shared a visual meditation by this culture care leader just last week. In this devotional piece based on Luke 1:41–55, Davison discusses two abstract paintings from Louise Henderson’s The Twelve Months series. In October, “Henderson has a cropped representation of a pregnant woman, her belly bright and fruitful as a melon, shines with what Henderson describes from her own pregnancy as ‘bubbles of life circulating in the womb.’ She magnifies joy from its tiniest beginnings both seen and unseen in the mother and the child.” Reflecting on this ebullient image in conjunction with her own pregnancy experience and Mary’s, Davison ends by quoting an adaptation of the Magnificat by songwriter Marcus Walton.
VIDEO INSTALLATION:Mary! by Arent Weevers: One of the primary images or metaphors for the season of Advent is pregnancy—the pregnant Mary awaiting the birth of Jesus, her belly swelling a little more each day, and a world heavy with expectancy, at the threshold of (re)birth. In 2009, media artist and theologian Arent Weevers [previously] created a gorgeous video installation titled Mary!. “Standing in the middle, a heavily pregnant young woman. Her hair partly covers her naked body to her ankles. She peers past you, with no expression on her face. From underneath, a gusty wind begins to blow, wafting her hair slowly upwards into the air. Suddenly, the woman bends slightly forward, her left arm in front of her abdomen, and grimaces painfully. Losing her balance, she falls sideways out of the frame until only black remains.” You can preview the video here. (Because of the nudity, there will be a content warning you have to accept before proceeding.)
Weevers’s art aims to express the paradoxical nature of the human body—its vulnerability and its strength—and in her role as Mary, the actor in this video exemplifies both so well. Gloriously gravid and standing tall at first, the woman looks into the distance and sees the future suffering of her son. She clasps her belly protectively in response, hunching forward as the painful knowledge of his destiny shoots through her.
MAGNIFICAT SERMON (and sketch): “The Love That We Are Made For” by Bob Henry: Bob Henry is an American Quaker pastor who often sketches in preparation for and in response to sermons. In this sermon he delivered December 11, 2016, at Silverton Friends Church in Oregon, he reflects on the oldest and most radical Advent hymn: Mary’s Magnificat. We are so used to thinking of Mary as quiet and demure, but Henry imagines her as “a strong woman with arms flaring, fists raised, wild bodily movements, beads of sweat forming on her brow, and a strong voice throwing down these words from Luke 1:46–55.”
This characterization is expressed in his drawing, which shows a Black Mary, full of faith and fire, surrounded by the words of Joy Cowley’s “Modern Magnificat.” He says the women of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, where he used to teach Bible, embody for him Mary’s bold declaration of justice, freedom, and hope in today’s world. He challenges us to sing Mary’s song in our own political climates.