Sunday’s comics pages presented a piece of seasonal theology, expressed 40 or so years ago by the late Charles Schulz.
Linus is relating to Charlie Brown the Gospel of the baby Jesus, angels, and the shepherds and the wise men who sought him, and reminding Charlie that “that’s what Christmas is all about.” The preternaturally wise Linus then asks Charlie, “So why we need Santa?”
The short answer might be that Santa is the agent of goodness and light that your average 6-year-old can understand. Saint Nicholas is the jovial realization of an abstraction that might otherwise be difficult to grasp. Santa is the signpost pointing us in the direction of giving and sacrifice or, more concisely, the gateway.
Ideally, every holiday season airing of “Here Comes Santa Claus” should be matched by at least one “Away in the Manger” or “We Three Kings” but syntactically archaic lines like “we three kings of orient are” and “field and fountain, moor and mountain” can be confusing to young ears, or even older ones. Then you stop and realize the Three Kings had no maps, and even well-connected guys would have to follow the local landmarks — if not some astounding celestial guide.
We all have to “orient” ourselves to the mystery in some way. It could be to rocks and streams, announcements by angels, or one kind of mall holiday song or another.
Your Santa may be white, or black, or be a guide of any other shape, color, or gender.
“Make your house fair as you are able,” says the little-known but user-friendly Christmas hymn, “People Look East.” A later verse, analogous to the Christ child, says, “Love, the Guest, is on the way.” Take out the comma and you have “Love the Guest” — also an appropriate concept for the season.
Like “Away in A Manger,” with its stars looking down on the place where homeless Jesus lay, the carol “Do You Hear What I Hear” personifies an element of nature: “said the night wind to the little lamb.”
A recent article noted that in the past 30-40 years, few new Christmas standard songs have adhered to our culture, that society repeats the comfortable familiar carols and is slow to allow new ones into the holiday lexicon; “Rudolph,” “Fairytale of New York” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” are the rare examples of songs that have firmly found their way into the Christmas canon in the last half-century.
“Do You Hear What I Hear” originated in 1962. It may come as a surprise that this beautiful standard is the youngest of our spiritual Christmas songs — and one recorded about 100 times by people from Bob Hope to Bob Dylan.
We think of it as some chestnut from mid-18th century Europe but that is only partially correct: It was written in 1962 by Gloria Shayne Baker and Noel Regney, in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis of that year. Regney, born in France, was drafted into the German army in World War II but deserted and joined the French Resistance, in which he was wounded in a firefight where he saw German soldiers die.
He moved to the U.S. in the 1950s and became a composer of music for TV and commercials. In 1962, living in Manhattan, he felt the despair of the Cold War and wrote the song at the behest of a record producer. He’d never done a Christmas song, but a happenstance sight gave him inspiration.
According to an article by Richard W. O’Donnell in americancatholic.org, Regney said that “en route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling. All of a sudden, my mood was extraordinary.”
Baker said that when they first played the melody together, “it broke us up. We cried. Our little song broke us up. You must realize there was the threat of nuclear war at the time.”
Regney later said, “I am amazed that people can think they know the song and not know it was a prayer for peace. But we are so bombarded by sounds and our attention spans are so short.”
It’s been pointed out that the song, against biblical scholars’ precepts, has the shepherds also following the star, and not just the Magi, as is the traditional view. But how do we know the poor guys with staves didn’t also see the star and follow it just as the three men with scepters?
The working-class guys, unlike the Magi, would not have been able to afford publicists. And, as field men who routinely “watch their flock by night” they were, as a job description, probably one step behind mariners in their ability to read the night sky and know if some blessed beacon was parking over Bethlehem. The shepherds were surprised, but getting past that they were certainly oriented.
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” puts the mystery of Christ’s birth in a variety of perspectives, but it asks us to look upon the joy of Christ’s birth from a perspective, an orientation, other than our own. And, even more than other of the chestnuts we enjoy every year, the song’s message of peace is as needed as much today as it was when it was written in those dark fall days 41 years ago.