In a memoir essay which accompanied his first collection of Christmas music, Sufjan Stevens recalled how, after years of hating the December holiday, he came to love it while making pancakes. A spatula left on the stove began to burn, resulting in a smell that reminded Stevens of burnt tube socks, which brought back memories of a minor Christmas turmoil from when he was a child.
The smell sent him “into a tragic-comic-sentimental shock that was simultaneously mundane and supernatural,” he wrote, “a complete recollection of important events in my life, the good and the bad, the blessings and misfortunes. …And with all these things I came to comprehend the formation of genealogies, family histories, a genetic superstructure that could be used to describe - in microcosmic terms - the order of the universe.”
In a most striking conclusion to the essay, Stevens wrote this: “At the very center of the universe I saw the Christ Child, an infant baby, helplessly crying, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger, trembling and suckling and cooing and burping and crying and laughing and giggling and spitting up breast milk all over the place. This was the mysterious incarnation of God ... probably not much bigger than a six pack of acrylic tube socks.”
Stevens’ music has always struck me as incarnational. Lyrically, his music is well known for being rich with spiritual allusions couched in a peculiar, literary vision of life in all of its beautiful, embodied messiness. More than this, though, the sense in which his music strikes me as incarnational is in Stevens’ idiosyncratic style - one that touches upon the full range of human experience, from choral to offbeat, from angelic to profane. Stevens’ new five-volume (five albums) collection of Christmas songs - titled Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10 - is a follow up to the previous five-volume set he released six years prior. The collection features a host of classic carols, well-known hymns, original music and even some Age of Adz-style electronic flourishes.
One reason why I want to call this particular Christmas music collection incarnational is because it does not offer up a whitewashed celebration of Christmas. Rather, much of Stevens’ Christmas collection is filled with melancholy, impending judgment and sorrowful yearning. The gloom is evident in the recently released violent parody Claymation video for “Mr. Frosty Man.” And it’s also evident in some of the title choices, like the foreboding instruments-only song, “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way.” Perhaps most notably, though, some of the songs and some of the accompanying materials for the collection lament the irony that is Christmas consumerism - the onslaught of greed run amok in the name of He who is eternally content in the love of the Father.
Just as appropriately, however, Stevens’ collection is not without a cheerfulness that reverberates. Of course, this good humor shines through in many of the classic carols and hymns, but one of my favorite tracks is another Stevens original called “Christmas in the Room.” The hopeful song cuts through the ironies of the many potential Christmas trappings and points to a stripped-down, beautiful love:
No gifts to give, they're all right here
Inside our hearts, the glorious cheer
And in the house we see a light
That comes from what we know inside
Whence this hopeful love - this light - in the midst of depressive darkness, misplaced desires and in the face of sure death?
More than anything, I get the sense that Stevens wants you to feel your plight and your hope, which are wrapped up in the incarnation. He characteristically ends a few of his tracks with repetitious, soulful pleadings. “Do you hear what I hear?” transforms in the final five minutes of a nine-minute electronic frenzy into “Do you feel what I feel now?” And what does he feel now? Well, I would say it’s that supernatural feeling that the mundane smell of a burnt spatula or tube socks might provoke: that the bad and the good forming the narrative of our lives has a telos at the center which makes sense of it all. In Stevens’ parlance, it’s that we’re all the Christmas Unicorn, but we’re loved anyway, because “baby Jesus is the king-a-ling-a-ling.”