“Christmas TIme’s a-Comin'”is the name of a bluegrass Christmas song. When I was playing a lot more often than these days on the bluegrass and banquet circuit, I was always struggling to come up with bona fide mountain and bluegrass Christmas tunes. Generally we would simply take regular carols and hymns and sing them with a banjo and a mandolin. The few tunes from that world I came across were thanks to Emmy Lou Harris, who introduced me to“Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” And then there was Bill Monroe’s tune, “Christmas Time’s a-Comin’,” whose words contained a single sentiment, “I’m going home. The house is ready, can’t wait to see all my people.” One verse goes
Holly’s in the window, home where the wind blows
The cane foam’s a runnin’, Christmas time’s a comin’
Can’t you hear them bells ringin’, ringin’? Joy, don’tcha hear them singin’?
When it’s snowin’, I’ll be goin’ back to my country home
Most of us have never seen “cane foamin’.” The irony is that the song was written by Tex Logan, an electrical engineer from Texaswho worked for Bell Laboratories with a Master’s degree from MIT and a Ph.D. from Columbia, where he pioneered what became
digital audio. Like his father, he was a fiddler. He played with a lot of famous people, including the Bee Gees. So much for the “country” roots.
But maybe that’s what Christmas music of all kinds does for us—connects us to deep and old roots, the places that were “home” no matter where we are now. This past Sunday we were inspired by beautiful music, some new, most familiar to us, but all around the theme of peace was woven also a sense of “home.” This season is the one in our church that is most deeply traditional. Amid all the rapid changes and chaos of this time, there is a longing to make our way back into this story we’ve heard and told a thousand times. We already know the ending, but like all good stories there is pleasure in telling it yet again. We notice something different each time, or even if not, there is simple pleasure in touching home again.
Over the river and through the woods…
I’ll be home for Christmas…
Secular Christmas songs are about the nostalgia for a simpler time, perhaps the longing for the earliest times of life when we might have been fortunate enough to be secure and taken care of by the love of a family. But even the religious carols tell us an extraordinary story–that in some mysterious way God was manifest not in the Roman Empire or any other power, but in a humble home. The first image of Jesus on earth, durable for all these centuries, is essentially three–a mother, a father, and a baby.
Whatever imperfections or brokenness our own experiences of home may have been, the longing for it seems universal. May God help us all to help each other go home–children living on the other side of the country, brothers and sisters who no longer speak, refugees in camps, asylum seekers in detention facilities built by fear, stage IV cancer patients, lonely people in big cities, estranged siblings, long-lost friends–help each other. We need, before we leave here, to go home one more time.
Adapted from my newsletter column from this week at vhbc.com.