The sun rose at 7:52am today in Seattle, and it will set at 4:18pm. Over the next week, the darkness will whittle away a few more minutes of light until Tuesday, the solstice and shortest day of the year with 8 hours, 29 minutes, and 17 seconds of light. Well, 8 hours and such of the sun being above the horizon, but it’s likely that the forecast clouds and rain will make an already dark season all the darker.
I like the dark season — not for the darkness itself and the sudden urges it brings (like wanting to sleep til 10 and go to bed at 8, or making and eating baked goods twice a day) but for what it brings out in people, the discrete practices that people save for the darkest time of year. Particular traditions, legacy recipes, layers and layers of clothing…I love it. Unfortunately, attempts to capitalize on those traditions have saturated our shared air space with Griswold-inspired light displays, pumpkin spice everything, and harassing Salvation Army bells and buckets on sidewalks (not a fan of the SalvArm, but that’s a different post…just, please, make a donation to an organization that really needs it and serves people’s needs, not one that forces people to pray before they’re fed). Perhaps an antidote to all that, I gravitate toward practices that embrace the darkness, that don’t rush out of winter into spring, that make space to actually flesh out the metaphor and think about what the darkness represents and the light I want to head toward.
Ever see Love Actually (if you’re a Love Actually lover, umm #sorrynotsorry)? I actually very strongly dislike the movie, but the one thing I do like about it is the school pageant that prompts the film’s climax and finally ties together its 73 distinct plots. Amidst the oft-lamented consumerism of the season (but rampant consumerism is fine in, say, July? #comeon), communities observing Christmas gather, make space to tell stories, sing songs, and make or mend or release the relationships that delivered them to the darkest season. I have fond (if distant) memories of participating in my parish’s Christmas pageant, a decidedly more religious affair than the debauchery of Love, Actually (who lets tweens sing Mariah Carey at a holiday gathering?! #imean #comeon), somewhere around age 10 or 11. My Shepherd #2 donned a cartoonish, rope-belted brown robe and a fake beard (provided by the church) and a fetching blue scarf from my mother’s closet (I felt the character needed a little something).
Once we started with our parts, slowly and awkwardly enacting the basic choreography of the Christmas narrative, I forgot all about the scarf or even the fact that I was on stage. I was only aware that I was one thread in a story we were all weaving together. Being part of the pageant was a lot more fun than our annual Christmas concert in the school gym. Rickety risers, tweenish body odor escaping wool sweaters, terrible songs about some dullards named Suzy Snowflake and Jack Frost. Each grade level would perform a set — two or three carols with breaks for Orff instrument demonstrations and recorder quartets (because, who doesn’t love hearing “Variation on the Theme of Hot Cross Buns” in a school gym on the night before Christmas vacation). There wasn’t much substance in those concerts — mostly just a parade of cuteness as a way to say “thank you for paying tuition.”
It wasn’t until I was in college that I started getting sentimental about the season. At the beginning of December, the Glee Club (our university chorale) did a holiday show that featured a range of music from the sublime to the ridiculous, a handful of solos, and two hours of being mesmerized by our glamorous conductor’s gown. Glee Club alumnx would join us on stage to sing “Night of Silence/Silent Night,” which paired Franz Gruber’s carol with a modern verse by David Haas.
Cold are the people, winter of life
We tremble in shadows this cold endless night
Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping
Flowers that will echo the sunrise
Fire of hope is our only warmth
Weary, its flame will be dying soon.
That first year singing with the Glee Club, singing “Night of Silence” helped me see two essential truths: First, we don’t need to escape the darkness — we can only embrace it, lean into it, and let it carry us into light. Second, holiday concerts are incredibly powerful instruments for emotional manipulation. We’d sing something powerful like Fanshawe’s “African Sanctus,” something sublime like Lauridsen’s “O magnum mysterium.” The smaller women’s ensemble would sing something sweet and corny, the men’s ensemble would sing something bawdy and belty. Then, in case any heartstrings were still dangling, we’d all land in the “Night of Silence” and share an earnest and fervent moment of hope and peace.
Those concerts prepared me well to sing with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus for ten years. The BGMC’s holiday programs were equally diverse (if more extreme) mixes of the sublime and the ridiculous. Our director’s expertise and the group’s capacity took us to really divine depths and to the highest of high camp, but it was our satirical pieces that gave me new language for engaging the season. Old classics didn’t need to be treated with reverence and schlock, and traditional forms for holiday observance definitely needed some queering up. One of my favorite pieces to perform was a set of parodies, the “What-If” carols: what if Stephen Sondheim wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” like Sweeney Todd? if Philip Glass wrote “Silent Night”? if Lawrence Welk wrote “Away in the Manger” (as a polka, of course)? if Kander and Ebb wrote “I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus” as a Liza ballad? if Jerry Herman wrote “We Three Kings” in the style of Mame?
Who’s those guys in the long cotton dresses?
Who’s so wise, we’ll give you three guesses?
Three kings (bum bum) who followed a sta-aar.
Skewering the classics and saccharin holiday pomp was as much playfulness with the music as it was a critique of the heteronormative culture that produced them. The old music was a reminder of the old world, one that didn’t want us, or that swept us aside. The old world whose sentimental movies queer people weren’t part of unless there was a dramatic coming-out involved. The old world that stranded queer people from their given families and left us, amid the darkness, to discover our chosen families. The old world that whittled us out of Love Actually and left us on the cutting room floor. Seriously, not one of the 182 relationships explored in the movie is queer? And they had the audacity to tease us and make us think Andrew Lincoln was in love with Chiwetel Ejiofor (who isn’t? #amiright) until he reveals his love for Keira Knightly in a barfworthy confession via cue cards that makes John Cusack’s “In Your Eyes” moment in Say Anything look like Olivier doing Hamlet. Anyway…
I’m loath to jump on the true meaning of Christmas bandwagon. Yes it’s commercial, yes it’s consumeristic, but what do you expect when a marketing tool (Santa) has been elevated to the level of divine powers to shield children from truths like yes, it’s dark and cold and scary, and no, these presents didn’t appear out of some Arctic magic but, yes, they were provided for them by adults who strive to care, support, feed and shelter them? But when we go Griswold with our lights and focus on recreating someone else’s image of what peace, hope, love, and joy are supposed to look like, we’re just filling the darkness, not embracing it, not sitting with it and letting it contrast and amplify the light sources in our lives. Embracing the darkness, leaning into it, letting it carry us forward is how many of us find the freedom and redemption that the Christmas story promises. Or, in short, bumper sticker form: Avoiding the dark doesn’t deliver the light.
So this season, embrace the darkness. Lean into it. Maybe it will inspire empathy. Maybe it will spark a new wave of generosity or kindness. Maybe it will give you a fleeting, sacred chance to get lost, to discover something new, and to find a new way forward. Or maybe it will just give you space to laugh, cackle, and smirk, to exorcize the demons that have been dragging you down or keeping the past too-alive.
Looking for some of the darker holiday (should be-) classics?
- Listen to Belle & Sebastian’s “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The Scottish band weaves an austere, stark, elegant, deeply moving, and decidedly un-churchy rendition of the ancient hymn.
- Watch The Golden Girls “‘Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas.” All of the Girls’ Christmas episodes are wonderful, but this one includes Blanche’s best holiday gift to her friends — The Men of Blanche’s Boudoir Calendar. Fun fact: Famously, during rehearsal for the episode, the crew conspired to plant sultry photos of themselves in the actors’ props, which, when Arthur, Getty, McClanahan & White opened the calendars, sparked a huge laugh for the whole company.
- Read David Sedaris’ “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol” from Holidays on Ice. Or, even better, listen to Sedaris read it for a live episode of This American Life. The author takes the voice of a theater critic surveying and skewering children’s Christmas pageants.
- Watch “Turkey Lurkey Time” from Promises, Promises. The play only coincidentally overlaps Christmas, just enough to justify a musicalized office holiday party, resulting in iconic choreography that is revered by musical theater devotees. Watch the original 1968 cast perform at the Tony Awards, the slightly spliced and less-well choreographed version from the 2010 revival, or (my real recommendation) the magical homage to the original in Camp (and while you’re at it, just watch the whole film).
- But darkest and most delicious of them all: Mona Abboud performing “The Pretty Little Dolly” on The Tonight Show. Parodying a little girl’s letter to Santa, half the fun is watching Johnny Carson’s reactions, but the better half of the fun is Abboud’s performance of the increasingly crass and disturbing toy she desires.