Last Wednesday night, we held a Longest Night service at my church. This service, to be held on or near the longest night of the year, is designed to make space for those who are grieving or hurting around the holidays—to remind them that Christmas is for them, too:
For those more jaded than jolly, more hurting than “Hark! The Herald Angels”; for those who may have a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit because of an empty chair at the family dinner table, the diagnosis hanging overhead even more surely than the Star of Bethlehem, or a troubled mind made cloudier by the shortened days.
At this service, we chose to use a song by Vienna Teng, a pianist, singer, and songwriter I love. It’s a seasonal song, in a sense—in exactly the sense we needed to be spoken to at our Longest Night Service.
It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart
Of feeling the full weight of our burdens
The only problem with this song was the title. It’s called “The Atheist Christmas Carol.” I remember seeing that on the track listing of Teng’s 2004 album Warm Strangers and thinking it must be something scandalous or cynical. But this song is neither.
It’s the season of grace coming out of the void
Where a man is saved by a voice in the distance
It’s the season of possible miracle cures
Where hope is currency and death is not the last unknown
The good people working with me on our Longest Night service found the title of the song confusing—after all, the only word from it that actually appears in the lyrics of the song is “The.” We elected to leave the title off the program so as not to distract anyone.
My parents came to this Longest Night service along with my grandfather, because, of the many people we were remembering as a family this year, my grandmother Jean (Mimi to me and my cousins) was one of them. My parents are also fans of Vienna Teng, and I had let them know we’d be using this song.
My dad’s experience of hearing it in that context went like this:
When the song started, he smiled. Vienna Teng! He loves her music, and this is a great song. Beautiful lyrics, so fitting for this liturgical occasion (He’s a pastor, too).
And then our lead singer got to the chorus:
Don’t forget I love
I love you
Then, he said, he was emotionally obliterated. Four simple words, in a Christmas carol that doesn’t once mention 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, and he was down for the count when it came to being able to speak.
The reason was this: my grandmother wasn’t the only person we were remembering that night. In fact, my family had too many people to remember on that Longest Night: my great-uncle Charlie; my mom’s college roommate’s dad, Paul; my godfather’s mother-in law, Pat; my best friend’s fiance’s father, Howard; and—dead only days before—Ben, who had been my sister’s boyfriend, and was still her beloved friend. He was 37.
It was Ben whom my Dad thought of when that chorus repeated. Later that night, he asked me if I would sing it at Ben’s funeral that Saturday. Once I got clearance from my sister and Ben’s mom, I said yes—not really knowing whether I would be able to get through it without breaking down.
We did print the name of the song in the program for Ben’s funeral, and I’m glad we did—because I’ve been thinking about it in regards to Ben and in relation to the very meaning of Christmas.
Ben and his family weren’t big churchgoers—Ben loved talking religion and philosophy and would gladly (and bravely!) engage my dad in conversation on such topics, but he was not himself particularly religious. In a way, the title bridged what we might see as a gap in ideological commitment between Ben’s truth and the context in which he was memorialized.
But I finally figured out what the title of this song means to me: it means that Christmas is for everyone.
In an age where Christians are obsessed with keeping the Christ in Christmas and remembering that Jesus is the reason for the season, this is important to recall. I don’t disagree that Christians ought to take a close look at our celebration of this holiday and ask what about it is and isn’t aligned with the life and message of Jesus.
However, we forget that some of these mantras, and especially the rhetoric about a “War on Christmas,” is exclusive, antagonistic, and dishonoring of, if I may, the reason for the season.
Jesus wasn’t born only for those who keep the Christ in Christmas. Jesus was born for everyone.
Christmas is for everyone. When we discredit the ways in which people respond to the invitation of Christmas, ways that don’t explicitly use the name of Jesus, we forget that Jesus came for love of all humanity long before anyone knew or professed his name. We forget that Jesus was born unable to speak his own name. We forget that Jesus came, not teaching and admonishing, but wailing, hungry, human.
So I will continue to treat “The Atheist Christmas Carol” as a song that carries profound truth about this beautiful, brutal, joyous, lonely time of year, not just in spite of its title but because of it. Christmas is for everyone. At Christmas, God says, in the most tangible, unbelievable way, to each and every one of us:
Don’t forget I love
I love you