I was in the car yesterday, listening to holiday music on the radio, when they played a stunningly beautiful rendition of “Silent Night” featuring the brilliant violinist Joshua Bell and a choir of young voices. It was so sweet, so pretty, I felt a great welling up of emotion. But then, I always do that when I hear any version of “Silent Night.” I suppose it’s partly because of the lovely, simple words and melody. I don’t get the same feeling about “Good King Wenceslas,” my other favorite carol, which has a sort of rousing good cheer to it. “Silent Night” is sung slowly, with feeling, best done in a dim sanctuary with a lighted candle in hand. There is something about the song that evokes all of the bittersweetness of the holiday season – joy and sorrow, things present and things past, people cherished and people mourned.
I remember the first time I got choked up over “Silent Night.” I was a teenager, a member of the Methodist Youth Fellowship in my southern hometown. On the Sunday night before Christmas, it was tradition for the church youth to forego our usual meeting and instead go caroling about the community. Some of us could sing and some couldn’t, but we all made a joyful noise of one kind or another, and when we finished our rounds and went back to the church for brownies and hot chocolate, we were richly warmed with the spirit of the season. I remember that we were unusually subdued on those occasions, our teenage souls touched by something deeper than the mere singing of songs.
We caroled mostly for the benefit of the town’s sick and shut-in. And in a town of four thousand, we included just about anybody who had the least kind of malady, from terminal illness to ingrown toenail, so there would be enough recipients to make it a worthwhile evening.
This one Christmas I remember so vividly, my grandmother, my beloved Mama Cooper, was on our caroling list. She had been down with a cold and had not been able to attend church services that weekend. So we showed up on her front porch on Sunday night. She bundled herself in scarf and overcoat and stood in her open doorway while we sang a carol. And then she requested “Silent Night.”
As we began to sing, I looked into Mama Cooper’s aging face and confronted, for the very first time, her mortality. She was a powerfully sweet influence on my young life: mentor, cheerleader, protector, confidant, friend – all those things only a grandmother can be. I suppose I had assumed she would always be there. But in that instant I realized that she wouldn’t, and I was devastated. So I stood there on the back row with tears rolling down my cheeks, my voice caught in my throat, and – purely and simply – grieved.
Mama Cooper lived for another thirty years or so, and I had the continued blessing of her companionship right up to the end. We had lots of good times together. But I think I always appreciated her more after that December night on her front porch when I was a mere, half-formed lad. At her funeral, when her other grandsons and I bore her to her gravesite, I silently sang “Silent Night” and I cried – not so much because she was gone, but because of what she had left in my heart.
I think it’s perfectly okay for a guy to cry, to admit that you have the capacity to be deeply affected by something or someone, to be vulnerable to the whole range of human emotion. And the holiday season is a perfectly good time to be emotionally vulnerable, to shed a tear or two over the people we miss, along with tears of joy for those we cherish and cling to, rejoicing in the gift of the days to come when we can say the things we need to say, do the things we need to do, for those who are still with us.
So in this holiday season, I wish for you a “Silent Night” moment. It’s a good thing to take into the new year.