A friend passed along a list of quotes from children, including a sixth grader who said, “I like my teacher because she always cries when we sing ‘Silent Night’” Well, good for her. So do I, unashamedly.
I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but it probably has something to do with the lovely, simple words and melody. “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 invokes the bittersweetness of the season – of joy and sorrow, things present and things past, of people cherished and people mourned.
I remember the first time I ever cried over “Silent Night.” I was a teenager, a member of the church youth group in my small southern hometown. On the Sunday night before Christmas, it was tradition for us to go caroling about the community. Some of us could sing and some couldn’t, but we all made a joyful noise, 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.
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 unable to attend services that weekend, so we showed up on her doorstep 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 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. I know I appreciated her even more after that December Sunday night 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. Some think not and make a superhuman effort not to. But I believe allowing yourself to cry is an act of courage: admitting that you have the capacity to be deeply affected by something or someone, to be vulnerable to the whole range of human emotions. Tears are worth shedding for all sorts of reasons, many of them perfectly happy ones. During these holidays, we cry because of the people we miss and we shed tears of joy for those we cling to. We cry over precious memories and over the gift of days to come when can say the things we need to say, do the things we need to do, for those who are still with us.
I try to take a moment during the week before each Christmas, right by myself, to light a candle in a darkened room and sing “Silent Night.” I launch out bravely, but there’s no way I’ll get all the way through. No matter. It’s a special thing to take into the new year.