Driving with my wife one afternoon over the Christmas season, we rolled through Bethlehem — New Hampshire, that is, not the West Bank, or Pennsylvania. I pulled up Nat King Cole’s holiday classic “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and gave it a spin as we headed further north. For obvious reasons, it was enchantingly appropriate.
Next morning, we awoke to an inch of fresh snow outside our hotel room and breakfasted in a nearby village. As we pulled away from the restaurant, Andy Williams’ “White Christmas” was sounding from the car speakers. Again, delightfully apropos.
The potency of those two moments was so very personal, so entrancing; hard to quantify but undeniably tangible. They were reminders of music’s power; its capacity to transport the hearer, in a melodious moment, to another time, place, set of circumstances.
One of my favorite Christmas songs — musically, at least — is a little known number by Petula Clark, circa 1969, called “The Happiest Christmas“. Whenever I listen to it, I’m eleven years old again, standing near a window in my living room in our Connecticut home. It’s late afternoon. Behind me, our fully-decked Christmas tree gleams with light. Curiously, there’s no snow on the ground in our yard, but it is overcast and cold.
Why that particular memory sparks on that tune I don’t know, but it bubbles up inside me nearly inevitably every time the British songstress begins, “The happiest Christmas is a homecoming Christmas …”.
Many another composition — holiday-themed or otherwise — leave similarly evocative impressions on me; and have done so for ages for others. Music impacts individuals — and groups of individuals — like few other influences, for good or bad. It seems hymns and choruses, for instance, played a role in nearly every consequential religious awakening that’s occurred.
A case could be made, conversely, that the musical landscape of the 1960s served a material role in corrupting that generation. Would the first two components of the notorious “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” triad have sunk their malign talons into that era’s youth if they hadn’t teamed up with that third element?
The sway of beloved Christmas melodies, and often music in general, reminds us man is a sentimental critter. Let’s be frank: not a few favorite noels are acoustically rather forgettable, stylistically tacky or gaudy or loaded with treacly lyrics. But who cares? Their association with “the most wonderful time of the year” renders these refrains infectious for otherwise discriminating millions who grew up surrounded by them a few cheerfully anticipated weeks every December.
Regarding the aforementioned standards I’d enjoyed on our recent road-trip, had Nat King Cole performed his in exactly the same way but changed its topic to another “little town” — say, Poughkeepsie? I’d likely not have listened to it, then or ever. Try swapping out “White Christmas” with “Warm Tuesday”. You think Andy Williams or Bing Crosby would’ve been as jazzed to record that one? Or multitudes developed any interest in tuning it in annually, over and over again?
People aren’t just intellectual, physical or spiritual beings. Obviously, emotion does its thing within us in substantial ways, as well. The Scriptures frankly depict a God Who is always thinking, Who feels keenly, Who is a Spirit yet Who, as December 25 recalls, took on flesh-and-blood in order to save a planet full of flesh-and-blood types. From the beginning, we were created in His image, that image.
Humans’ wistfulness, our nostalgic, happy, sad, sometimes passionate sides meaningfully shape preferences and responses – which goes a long way toward explaining the popularity and pull of songs that proliferate during Christmastide.
And which, beyond that, supplies a key for reaching those we’re trying to persuade in our troubled age. Men and women are multi-faceted creatures; not necessarily irrational, but certainly supra-rational, i.e., beyond mere rationality. In order to achieve maximum effect, then, the communication of ideas has to touch the varied aspects of human nature; every one of them, where possible. Those of us championing what we believe to be life-fortifying truth have to appeal not simply to the brain, but the heart as well.
My father has emphasized to me on occasion, “People don’t necessarily remember what you said, but how you made them feel.”
Across the millennia, demagogues have paid cynical deference to that reality, manipulating and propagandizing “the mob”, often to destructive end. That said, it doesn’t change the rubber-meets-the-road verity that the most fruitful and enduring communication penetrates audiences in their mind, spirit and soul.
Conservatives, Constitutionalists, Gospel-proclaimers need to target the whole man: cognitive, spiritual, visceral. Actual truth – and all truth is God’s truth — directly addresses each one of these parts. What are people needing? Feeling? What will strike a chord within each hearer or reader of our message? How to move from brute information to heart-arresting inspiration?
The Savior whose birth we celebrate around this time came to repair human beings stung by sin on every level: physically, spiritually, socially, mentally, emotionally. Why wouldn’t the heralding of His boundlessly good ideas – His wisdom and ways — not, similarly, implicate all of the above?
As Isaac Watts put it three-hundred years ago in what has become a Christmas classic: “He comes to make his blessings flow/Far as the curse is found …”. Flow, in other words, to the very depths of everything that makes us human beings.
Those in the business of transmitting truth to others best keep that in mind as we represent the heavenly solutions to universal needs. If we can reach men’s hearts, we’ll see men’s hearts transformed.
Image: CCO Creative Commons; https://pixabay.com/en/sculpture-bronze-the-listening-2275202/