December 21, 2018

Readers find the joy and true meaning of Christmas in their favorite carols

Tom Nichols, left, Angie Day and Michele Perkins of Vox Sacra, the archdiocese’s schola cantorum, sing on Dec. 6 during the Catholic Community Foundation’s “An Evening of Lights” at the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis. Vox Sacra performed at the event, held to honor the memory of loved ones during the Advent season. (Submitted photo by Kim Pohovey)
By John Shaughnessy

This year marks the 200th anniversary of “Silent Night,” the Christmas song that was composed in 1818 and first performed on Christmas Eve of that year in a small parish church in Austria.

Ever since, “Silent Night” has captured the true essence of Christmas—God’s gift of his son to humanity—in such a wonderful way that it has continued as one of the most-loved carols of the season for many people, including Archbishop Charles C. Thompson.

“It has a beautiful story or history of being composed,” Archbishop Thompson notes. “It is also a soothing, simple melody that seems to resonate in the hearts and minds of practically everyone.”

In recognition of the anniversary of this perennial Christmas favorite, The Criterion invited our readers to share their favorite Christmas song, and why that song resonates with such meaning for them.

We hope our readers’ selection of songs—and the stories behind their choices—will add to your preparations for once again welcoming the Christ Child into your life.

‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’

Marilyn Caldwell’s favorite Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” always takes her back to her childhood—a time of war when her brother served his country.

“This song reminds me of when I was 12 years old,” says Caldwell, a member of Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Danville. “My brother had joined the Air Force after graduating from high school during World War II.

“His first Christmas away from home was a very sorrowful time for my mother. Approaching the holiday season was the first time this song was played on our radio. My mother sat with tears in her eyes, but with loving memories in her heart. It became my favorite song.”

‘The Little Drummer Boy’

Jamie Huber says it’s hard to choose a favorite Christmas song because so many “can stir up a variety of emotions in even the most stoic people.” Still, he chose “The Little Drummer Boy” for a special reason.

“Of course, it is a cute story of a little boy meeting his baby Savior,” says Huber, a member of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Clarksville. “Although with a bit more thought, one can see that like many children’s stories, this one too has a much deeper meaning.

“In a way, ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ is the story of what our own meeting with the King is meant to be. ‘Come, they told me … A newborn King to see …’ is a reflection of our own call to Jesus. Although we may feel ‘our finest gifts’ are not worthy to ‘lay before the King,’ we go to meet him anyway. No matter our situation, we are all called to meet him.

“The Little Drummer Boy had only one thing to give Jesus. In the true fashion of a child who only knows how to show love through simple acts, the little drummer boy ‘played for him.’ Matthew 18:3 instructs us to ‘Be like children.’

“The little drummer boy is our example. Like him, we give to Jesus our best. We do this not through extravagant gifts or extraordinary acts of charity. We do it simply. Being present with Christ, loving my family, and keeping him in my thoughts are simple ways I give to Jesus. I hope, if through these simple acts, I humbly give my best to Jesus this season—or ‘play my best for him’—he will look down and ‘smile at me.’ ”

‘Indiana Christmas’

In his list of favorite Christmas songs, Sean Gallagher includes Gregorian chant hymns that “are more than a thousand years old.” Now, that list includes a new song that was recorded about 10 years ago—“Indiana Christmas” by the male a capella choir Straight No Chaser.

“Straight No Chaser created the song as a tribute to its beginnings at Indiana University in Bloomington,” notes Gallagher, a reporter for The Criterion. “It tells of a person who has moved to a big city far away who feels the call to return to Indiana, ‘where Christmas will always be real.’

“I love this song because I love my home state and long at this special time of the year to be close to my friends and loved ones who live far away.

“That, in a special sense, includes my mom who died three years ago. She, who nurtured a deep love of music in me, comes to mind when I hear these poignant words from ‘Indiana Christmas’:

‘And I remember those who are gone
Looking down on my home from above
Deep in December, it’s where I belong
Sharing the days with the ones who I
love. ’”

‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’

In his time as the director of the archdiocese’s Office of Young Adult and College Campus Ministry, Matt Faley has gained a new perspective of the difference that the Advent season makes in preparing people for Christmas.

“We did not grow up as a family that dug deeply into the Advent season,” Faley recalls. “Like many families, we celebrated Christmas well but did not prepare well. It was more about buying gifts and family parties, and at times the real meaning of the season would get lost. Working in ministry has allowed me the opportunity to truly experience Advent each season.

“Just a few years ago, while preparing for our annual Advent retreat here in the Office of Young Adult and College Campus Ministry, I was struck so deeply by the song ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel.’ It was like I heard the song for the first time. The lyrics are ones of great longing and great hope, and I felt just that. That year, I remember we closed our retreat with Mass and this song. It was so powerful.

“We sang this song with great zeal, and it echoed what I had felt leading up to that moment. It was a foretaste of heaven in a lot of ways. To this day, ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ remains on the top of my list of favorite Christmas songs.”

‘Joy to the World’

For Cathy Bloom, the joy of Christmas is connected to the joy she shares with her granddaughter for their favorite song.

“I love Christmas music,” says Bloom, a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. “Over the years, different songs, different arrangements were my favorites. That all changed when my granddaughter Jacquelyn attended a Bible school class. She learned a fun preschool version of ‘Joy to the World.’ It quickly became her favorite song, and mine also. Driving a car looking in the rearview mirror and seeing a 3-year-old doing a car seat dance to ‘Joy to the World’ makes joy in the heart.

“A few years later, a playmate and Jacquelyn were talking, and the friend asked Jacquelyn what her favorite song was. The friend named a Britney Spears tune as her favorite. My granddaughter happily exclaimed ‘Joy to the World’!

“Now she is a 16-year-old who helps decorate for Christmas, and as one can imagine I have lots of decorations that say ‘Joy.’ Jacquelyn is happy to place them with love. We listen to Christmas music, and when ‘Joy to the World’ comes on the stereo we can sing together in great voice, ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let Earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room.’ Yes, the Lord has room with Jacquelyn and I.”

‘Mary, Did You Know?’

As much as he appreciates sports, Bruce Scifres also savors Christmas songs, including the one that he considers the most meaningful to him—“Mary, Did You Know?”

“My favorite rendition of this song would probably be by the a capella group Pentatonix,” says Scifres, executive director of the Catholic Youth Organization for the archdiocese.

“This song is powerful for me because it reflects on the significance of the birth of Jesus to Mary, a teenage Jewish girl. As my wife Jackie and I are blessed with four children of our own, I have always believed that God hand-picks each of our children for us, as special gifts from him.

“It is then our primary task as parents for the rest of our lives to guide our children as they make their life journey back to God.

“In this song, Mary could not have fully realized the significance of the birth of her baby boy, and that he would one day serve as the ‘guide’ for all of humanity on our life journeys back to God. This message, along with the beautiful melody of the song, have always warmed my heart!”

Ever since growing up in Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove, Gina Fleming has always looked forward to its Christmas concert.

“Under the direction of Jerry Craney for nearly 50 years, and now echoing through Beech Grove under Dr. Joe Chrisman’s leadership, this concert always puts me in the Christmas spirit,” says Fleming, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese.

She believes that Craney would consider Pentatonix’s “Mary, Did You Know?” as worthy of being sung in the parish’s concert.

“What a beautiful reminder that our King and Savior came into this world a vulnerable, precious gift from God so that we could witness God’s love, mercy and joy with the hope of experiencing everlasting life with him! My favorite line is, ‘This child that you delivered will soon deliver you.’ ”

‘Angels We Have Heard on High’

For Kathryn Jacobi, “Angels We Have Heard on High” evokes cherished memories of her hometown, her parish and the school where a religious sister helped develop her love of music.

“I attended a tiny Catholic school in the very small community of Charlestown, in southern Indiana,” Jacobi notes. “People there were generally farmers, factory workers and a few professionals and business owners. We had one grocery store, one five-and-dime [store], one bank, two drug stores, a community high school and a plethora of churches. The only church that mattered to me, of course, was my parish, St. Michael.

“My life in the 1960s and early 1970s revolved around my parish and school. We were small enough that we had two grades in each classroom. My sister was a year younger than I was, so every other year we were in the same classroom. When I was in the sixth grade and my sister in the fifth, [Franciscan] Sister Sylvia Moeller started our Christmas choir. I loved it. I wasn’t a particularly good singer, but I loved the anticipation and rehearsals that would lead to a triumphant Midnight Mass.

“Sister Sylvia—bless her—put her heart and soul in making us singers. We could have been in a big city cathedral—and in my imagination we were—our voices soaring up into some architectural splendor. But in fact, we were in a space that had once served as a gym. It was the only church I knew. It was my church and I never thought of it as anything less than sacred.

“My favorite carol was ‘Angels We Have Heard on High.’ There was something so magisterial about that carol. We belted it out in two-part harmony.

“During my seventh-grade year, I was learning how to play the piano. During that Christmas performance, I actually played our little electric organ, accompanying my classmates, playing all the Christmas carols. But it was ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ that always made my heart soar while I played.

“And now, as an older adult, and a member of St. Augustine Parish in Jeffersonville—a beautiful, traditional church with a soaring ceiling, beautiful Italian marble statues—when we sing that song at Mass during the Christmas season, I harken back to my junior high years and Sister Sylvia.

“I never quite appreciated her then, an older nun in her new shorter black habit and sandals, so intent on making us into a real choir … our smiling parents in the pews, and all my classmates belting out those carols, especially the one carol that was our magnus opus: ‘Angels We Have Heard on High.’”

‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’

Whenever Charlotte Bauer hears “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” she is always moved by how “its haunting lyrics of despair” set the stage for “the hope and promise that follows.”

It’s the hope and promise that God offers people, says Bauer, a member of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.

“God is always with us if we only listen,” she says. “God loves us and wants us to live in peace with each other. I am sure God sheds a few tears when he sees the evil that people do, and he only hopes they will turn to him and ask for forgiveness, as he loves us and wants only good things for us.”

Bauer says her favorite rendition of the carol is performed during the annual Christmas concert at St. Mark.

“It has been sung by Ben Briggeman under the direction of our choir director, Andy Eagan. I always have tears in my eyes, but my heart swells with hope at the end.”

‘O Holy Night’

The tears still come for Diane Buergler when she hears “O Holy Night,” reminding her of her grandmother.

“When I was a child, my grandparents would spend Christmas Eve with my family,” recalls Buergler, a member of St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis. “One Christmas when I was 7, we were waiting to open presents after dinner. I went into the living room to ask my grandmother something. I can still see her perched on the end of our sofa, gazing intently at our Christmas tree, softly singing along to ‘O Holy Night’ which my father had playing on the stereo.

“I will never forget the look on her face as she sat there singing with the tree lights reflecting off of her. Pure contentment and love. It was as if she was singing to the Christmas child. As I started to interrupt, my father gently told me to wait a minute, that this was my Busia’s [Polish for Grandma] favorite song.

“That was 50 years ago. ‘O Holy Night’ is my favorite Christmas song, and I still get teary eyed every time I hear it, thinking of my Busia and that special Christmas memory I have of her.”

When Norb Schott hears “O Holy Night,” the song takes him back to his past and midnight Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Indianapolis.

Once again, he sees the stars and the angels on the church ceiling, hears the organ soaring, and smiles as he watches “my dearest mother Irene” singing, “Fall on your knees! O hear the angels voices! O night divine! O night when Christ was born!”

“Oh, yes, I could hear those angelic choruses and praise on the lips of children as the Christ Child is once again amidst us,” recalls Schott, now a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle.

“The night of joy, the chorus of voices, the praise of the people, and once again ‘O Holy Night’ beams from mouths of folk needing a savior, welcoming the newborn King.

“How could I not remember ‘O Holy Night’ that announced a new day, a new beginning, a time of beauty—the memory of Christmas Midnight Mass at Sacred Heart? The year? Somewhere in childhood, but adolescence and adulthood, too. A forever joy. That hymn of praise and holiness always new in our hearts!”

Gina Marchino believes that “O Holy Night” captures the essence of the birth of Christ.

“When I hear this beautiful hymn, I am instantly transported to the night of Christ’s birth,” says Marchino, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis. “The line ‘fall on your knees’ nearly brings me to tears to think a tiny newborn baby would one day be worshipped the world over and be our Savior.”

‘Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella’

While Dan Bach first sang “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” as a sixth-grade student in 1948, it remains his favorite Christmas carol.

“Our choir director, Mr. Fehring, taught us how to sing ‘Jeanette, Isabella,’ telling us to pretend we were Prancer prancing on tip toes and floating very quietly house to house, and announcing in a whisper, ‘It is Jesus, good folks of the village, Jesus is born.’

“Hush, it is very early in the morning. Don’t wake him up. Jesus will cry, and Mary is tired. So sing softly.”

A member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Richmond, Bach says this French Christmas carol reminds him about being silent in Christ’s presence. Some of the lyrics also remind him of the beautiful scene between mother and infant, and the beautiful gift God has given to the world.

Bach closes his reflection about his favorite carol with these lyrics from the song: “Ah, Ah, beautiful is the mother! Ah! Ah! Beautiful is her Son!”

‘Silent Night’

Whenever Debbie Bruce hears “Silent Night,” she thinks of the night when her father was dying.

“The screams awoke me from a sound sleep. I was puzzled that I was able to sleep so well as my father was dying,” recalls Bruce, a member of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Rushville. “The night caregiver explained that Dad was experiencing ‘sundowners syndrome,’ a condition characterized by confusion and restlessness. He suggested talking softly to Dad, and when that didn’t work, singing.

“I tried many songs we used to sing with Dad as children, even ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’, his song to me. No luck. He loved Christmas and made it so much fun for the three of us kids. Singing Christmas songs was a huge part of the celebration. I quietly sang ‘Silent Night.’ Slowly, slowly, he calmed, relaxed, and slept.

“That was almost 13 years ago. I cry every time I hear or sing ‘Silent Night,’ but I am thankful for the comfort of the beautiful melody and the lyrics of my favorite Christmas song.”

For Maria Cossell, hearing “Silent Night” lets her imagine what it would be like to be part of that first Christmas.

“As I walk toward the Holy Family, I see the Savior of the universe resting in the arms of his mother,” notes Cossell, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis. “I am in awe of how Mary motions for me to come to her. Our heavenly mother reaches out her arms and invites me to hold our Lord. As Christ is laid in my arms a warmth fills my being.

“As I gaze on this little baby, I notice my breathing begins to slow down. Peace fills my being as I am reminded once again that God became human for me. He came to show me and invite me to encounter his Divine love and unfailing mercy. He is the one who longs to hold me and give me peace the world cannot give.

“As the song comes to an end, I am reminded of Mary’s role with my encounter with Christ. She is a beacon of light in the midst of the darkness that guides my way to the Lord. This Advent season, may the Blessed Mother guide us all closer to her son.”

During a season that he believes is too often marked by consumerism and chaotic noise,” Thomas Rillo finds comfort in the soothing music and lyrics of “Silent Night.”

“I imagine a silent world where the only sounds are the muffled sounds of human activity and the sounds originating in nature,” notes Rillo, a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.

“Silence is golden, and it has a sound that is found in a world at peace. For silence is fueled by peaceful conditions. And so it was when the shepherds tended their sheep in Bethlehem. Silence was all about them, and the sound of the soft wind, the rustling of grass, the munching of the sheep, the soft-spoken words of the shepherds.”

For Rillo, it all adds up to a reminder of “the true meaning of Christmas.”

“It is the birth of Christ and not feeding at the trough of frenzied shopping at the mall or the Internet. The song reminds me to be cognizant of the true focus of Christmas, and it certainly is not on the materialistic consumerism.”

‘Peace, Peace/Silent Night’

One of the great gifts of music is its ability to comfort us in times of heartbreak and sadness. Annette “Mickey” Lentz has felt that comfort in two Christmas songs, “Silent Night” and another version of that favorite called, “Peace, Peace/Silent Night.”

“My mom died when I was a 16-year-old teenager,” recalls Lentz, chancellor of the archdiocese. “She passed on Christmas Day in 1957—61 years ago. I remember so clearly attending Midnight Mass with my family, where of course many hymns were sung. When we returned home, Mom had passed on. Though I remember sadness, I felt comfort in the lyrics of ‘Silent Night.’ It brought peace to all of us.”

She’s found that same comfort in “Peace, Peace/Silent Night,” especially in these lyrics:

“This is a time for joy
This is a time for love
Now let us all sing together
Of peace, peace, peace on Earth.”

“Nothing comforts me more,” Lentz notes. “May all enjoy a Merry Christmas and Blessed New Year!”

‘Christmas Eve/Sarajevo’

Mark Hummer has a list of Christmas songs that he associates with different members of his extended family through the years. “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra reminds him of the larger families that have been a part of his Christmas memories.

“When I hear ‘Christmas Eve Sarajevo’ by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I think of the great times at the annual Cardinal Ritter [Jr./Sr.] High School Christmas concert and how the night ends with an old-fashioned Christmas sing-along,” notes Hummer, a member of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis.

“And at my hometown parish of St. Rita in Holly, Michigan, we always had a big community Christmas sing‑along. It was quite a sight for a small town—like a throwback to a Victorian Christmas as the town is decked out in a theme of Dickens Days.”

‘Lulaize-Jezuniu’ (‘Lullaby to Jesus’)

Mary Bednarek realizes that her favorite Christmas song isn’t well known in the United States, except among Polish-American communities.

“The carol is ‘Lulaize-Jezuniu, which can be translated ‘Lullaby to Little Jesus’ or ‘Hush Little Jesus.’ It’s a very soft, gentle song, a true lullaby,” says Bednarek, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Mooresville who grew up in a Polish-American community in northwest Indiana.

“The song is said to date from the 13th century, and some of the lyrics reflect the custom of rocking the figure of the Baby Jesus during celebrations of Nativity scenes. Not only did we sing this carol at home, but also at midnight Mass.”

‘The Christmas Song’

Certain Christmas songs have a way of reminding people of the special individuals who have touched their lives. So it is for Brad Burden, a teacher and the girls’ basketball coach at Our Lady of Providence High School in Clarksville.

“I grew up listening to big band songs with my grandfather who recently just passed away,” Burden notes. “Nat King Cole was one of his favorites, and ‘The Christmas Song’ was his and remains my favorite Christmas song.”

Burden especially appreciates these lyrics:

“And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you.”

“It sums up what Christmas is all about—to stay young at heart and have the joy of youth for our Savior.”

(We’d like to thank all of our readers for sharing their favorite Christmas songs. We received such an abundance of responses for the songs “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” that we had to limit the number of reflections we received about them. To everyone who shared a song—and to all our readers—may the blessings of the Christmas season be yours through the upcoming year.)

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