Finding Christmas in the Carol (A Warm Story For A Cold Day)

December 6, 2013 | 18 comments

It was the woman in the nightgown, leaning over her walker and dabbing tears with the back of her hand while we sang at her doorway.

That’s when Christmas came down and curled up in my heart. That woman — wrinkled and frail and bent — made me know how much Jesus loves us. And how He never stops loving us.

It’s the sort of unscripted moment that catches your whole self  — and your tear-ducts — by surprise. You stop singing for a second to peek inside your little self, and behold, the King of Kings is waving back.

And you’re changed.

Our whole lives might well be a series of these little and big heart-changes, these tiny brushes with something sacred. These moments are chain-linked into a series — one looping to connect with another during our lifetimes on planet Earth — to make a whole life in Christ. To make a whole song.

Hearts circle back to him, the way that a Christmas carol resolves on that last note–

“… little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”  

And maybe that’s why that woman in the nightgown cried when we sang “Away in a Manger.” Maybe she saw down that long chain of life-song, knowing that she’s somewhere toward the end of hers. And she remembered where she’d been, and all those times He was there — a long series of notes in the same direction.

She watched the pink-cheeked children, zippered against the cold at her doorway. The notes lifted up and up, straight off the staff and toward the sky, a twinkling starry heaven, listening.

Maybe she knew what I was feeling. Maybe she remembered something like what I was remembering–

I remembered singing “Away in a Manger” as a toddler in the front of the United Methodist Church sanctuary, trying hard to memorize the words and actions but not understanding why Jesus would come as a baby; then singing it again as a pre-teen, knowing the whole song (or at least the first verse) but quite seriously dreading the fact that I had to sing it in front of God and everybody; and then again as an adult woman, who had been away from the church so long that she’d mostly forgotten about that song — my own personal intermezzo. But when she came back, she discovered the sweetest surprise:

The song never forgot about her.

I feel it in my heart: The life-song is still resolving, down the staff to the final notes.

“I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
and stay by my cradle til …”

I don’t know if that’s what the woman with the walker was feeling. But I couldn’t stop watching her, hunched in her doorway. I had worried we’d come too late to sing to her, had feared she’d be in bed. I felt a twinge of guilt when she showed up on the threshhold in her nightgown.

But, she told us, she wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

We were five notes into the first verse when her tears started.

“Can I sing with you?” she asked one of the other singers.

And yes, of course she could.

And she did. She sang. And she let the tears fall. And she treasured it all in her heart. I knew it then–

I knew that Christmas descends in soft places, where notes aren’t black sticks on a musical staff, but are the pathways of praise toward a holy resolution–

Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care,
And fit us for Heaven
To live with Thee there.

Posting from the archive. 

What’s your favorite Christmas carol? Share in comments.

by | December 6, 2013 | 18 comments


  1. Sharon O

    wow. SO beautiful. Yes so many times in church the tears just fall and Jesus touches my heart over and over again. Christmas is that way too.

    • dukeslee

      When I was a little girl, our church would ring the sanctuary, and we’d each hold a candle in the dark. I’d carefully hold mine straight, so I wouldn’t spill wax. We’d sing “Silent Night.” It always felt so holy, and even as a child, I would cry, though I didn’t understand why it was happening. Why the tears were falling when I felt so happy on the inside. It makes perfect sense now, of course.

  2. Alison Hector

    I think my fave is “O Come All Ye Faithful”, Jennifer. 🙂

    • dukeslee

      Beautiful. Such an invitation, isn’t it, Alison?

  3. Jenn

    Silent Night has been my favorite since I can remember. This song immediately takes me to Christmas Eve, coming home from my Grandfather’s, the cold, crisp air, stars shining brightly, snow sparkling…I love the feeling of peace and calm this song brings.

    • dukeslee

      Oh, yes, me, too Jenn… I was sharing with another commenter here how we’d ring the sanctuary during that song — last song of the Christmas Eve service. We’d hold candles, and it was hard to sing the words for all the emotion stuck in my throat.

  4. Pam

    I don’t know if I can really pick just one… or even two. But Two of my favorites are Angels We Have Heard on High and O Holy Night. The first for the way the Glo-o-o-oria’s caught my heart the first time i heard it in church as a little girl. I still remember the OHHHH that it put inside me. And O Holy Night sung by a rich-voiced singer, also capturing me as a child, when I would ask my mom about “weary worlds” and what it all meant…

    • dukeslee

      LOVE Angels We Have Heard on High. Our brass choir is playing that tomorrow night at our Christmas program. I need to get my trumpet out and practice this afternoon. I’m a little rusty on the “Glo-o-o-ria” run. 🙂

  5. Sherrey Meyer

    Silent Night has been a favorite since childhood, but one that touches me with memories is O Holy Night. I can still remember the first time I heard my older brother sing it solo in church on Christmas Eve. He’s 14 years older than me, so there was lots of hero worship running between us. Part pride, part love, and part amazement brought together in that moment has left me with a special fondness for Christmas Eve service every year. Your story of this little woman touched me tonight on the coldest night of our winter yet. Now my heart is warmed. Thanks, Jennifer!

    • dukeslee

      A lovely story, Sherrey. Thank you for sharing. Are you a Christmas caroler? I love caroling through town with friends. Too cold this weekend, but maybe by next weekend it’ll warm up.

      • Sherrey Meyer

        Once upon a time I was a caroler, and then I had spinal difficulties which kept me from doing those kinds of activities. And now, unfortunately, our church doesn’t make an effort to go caroling. We will have a service of carols on Christmas Eve, which I’m looking forward to. Now, I sing in the choir and our new director has brought out some of the older Christmas music this season, and I’m enjoying singing praises and anticipation as we wait for that special day!

  6. Constance Ann Morrison

    I’m glad this wonderful story will have an even larger audience now that Ann Voskamp has posted a link to your post. I hope the image of the night-gowned woman with the walker–tears falling down her face–stays with me a long time.

    “And fit [me] for Heaven, to live with Thee there.”

  7. Maggie

    This is such a lovely story. There’s just something amazing about Christmas carols and the reactions they evoke in us. Away in a Manger has always been special to me because of my younger sister. She loved that carol so much as a child that she would beg for my mother to sing it to her year round, no matter the season. Even at a young age, those words really resonated with her. As an adult, she’s carrying on the tradition and sings it to my nieces and nephews all the time 🙂

    My favorite Advent/Christmas carol is “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”. The lyrics are so beautiful!

  8. Regina Strader Hunt

    Although it isn’t my particular favorite Christmas song, Silent Night is the most evocative for me. When my father was dying we all gathered at my parents’ home knowing this would be our last Christmas together as a family. My father was taking chemo so he couldn’t go to church on Christmas Eve. My husband is a minister and he conducted a full Christmas Eve worship service complete with communion for our family at my parents’ home. It is the most memorable worship experience I have ever had. We sang, we prayed, and celebrated the Lord’s Supper together, something that we hadn’t done together since we all left home. To this day, when the opening strains of Silent Night sound, I tear up and am unable to sing until the 2nd or 3rd verse. I am still, after 17 years, taken back to that evening when we all worshiped together for the last time. My father’s face told the whole story. The joy on his face and the light in his eyes are forever etched in my memory. Thank you for posing this question and taking me back to that precious night.

  9. Charmaine Boggs

    I love hearing O Come Emmanuel during Advent, with its slow, sacred pace. When Christmas finally arrives, my favorite classic carol is O Holy Night, sung by the choir at midnight. After that, my favorite contemporary Christmas song is Mary, Did You Know? by Vince Gill.

  10. Beth Strader Craycraft

    Those feelings you spoke of, felt very much like our last Christmas with my father 17 years ago. My sister, Regina Strader Hunt, posted earlier and set the stage for this most intimate and precious Christmas that we had ever experienced. Having my brother-in-law perform a full Christmas service, including holy communion, at my parents’ home was special enough. But when it came to singing our favorite Christmas songs that welcomed and praised the newborn Christ child, a sense of oneness filled me. Each word of each song that our voices sang in unison, hit a note in me. There was no greater gift than these words, meshed with the music, and we became a singular voice of the love of Jesus that had bonded our lives together more than the mere fact that we were family. Family has many definitions and is as varied as there are “families”. The families that grow up with God are more than just people living and growing up in the same household. God’s role in each of our lives, whether grandly known or quietly anonymous, incorporates a love deeper than you can ever truly define. Singing those songs, knowing that we would never ever sing them again with those same voices, punctuated each and every line of every song. The meaning became clear. The words became whole. The music swelled within us. Our small choir became all encompassing, as if ours were the only voices in the world. In essence, they were. Our connection with the depth of our love of our family, for God and His Son was larger than life at those moments. Our choir was only heard once, and only by us, but it was the most beautiful sound ever. We are certain that God was singing with us.

  11. Teresa R

    My favorite carol is The Little Drummer Boy. He didn’t come before baby Jesus with a fancy gift, but the gift he did offer was accepted with the same love.

  12. Lynn Morrissey

    Jennifer, so many beautful carols, so hard to choose. I think Joy to the World is my favorite. My heart leaps when I sing it. But my favorite solo (besides Cantique de Noel) is Sweet Little Jesus Boy, because it reminds me of the vulnerabiltiy of our precious Lord and how He came to live among us–lowly, in a manger. And it reminds me of my wonderful father who sang this gorgeous Spiritual with his sonorous bass voice, which dipped low below the staff straight into our hearts. He sang it at church and for my women friends as we’d gather for our annual Christmas luncheon here at our home. We’ll gather again this Saturday, but Daddy is not with us to sing it. I will carry on his tradition in a higher key, but with the humblest of hearts, laid low. My voice pales in comparison to his. My heart still breaks at the loss of him. Thank you for such a poignant and beautiful story, Jennifer. You told it so well.



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