Chapter House columnists and contributors to this page share their favorite Christmas story, book, movie, or music.
St. Robert Southwell’s The Burning Babe
This Christmas I recommend two seasonal compositions of the poet and English Martyr, St Robert Southwell, SJ: The Burning Babe and New Heaven, New War. The latter is the source of the lyrics in the short movement entitled ‘This Little Babe‘ in Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. (The whole work is very much worth a listen.) Already a martyr in spirit when he penned the verses, St Robert’s devotion to the beguilingly feeble Christ child -— his King and commander whom he followed to death upon the Tyburn Tree in 1595 — is wrapped in an unsettlingly bold imagery of flame, blood, and battle. His words will haunt your contemplation of the Nativity scene.
— Victoria Seed
Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory
The adult narrator tells the story of a particular Christmastime when he (then seven-years-old) and his sixty-something cognitively impaired cousin (“She is still a child”), perform their annual Christmas rituals, which center around making special gifts for people that they barely — or don’t even — know. The unnamed cousin has never traveled more than five miles from home, seen a picture show, or eaten in a restaurant. Yet, from the poverty of her own life she makes others’ lives rich; including the least likely person in the story. A Christmas memory indeed.
— Kenneth Craycraft
Porridge Christmas special: No Way Out
I am going to go for one of the Christmas special Porridge episodes, No Way Out. It is extremely funny, timeless and, at many levels, very human and appropriate for most of the family. Whilst we should not necessarily sit in front of a comedy programme thinking about serious things, does it help us understand the feast? Well, we should remember that the Christian faith is comprehensible to everybody and it is for sinners. There certainly will be, up and down the country, people celebrating the feast in all our prisons — with the support of our priests and lay people.
— Philip Booth
The Alto Line from “Carol of the Bells”
Singing alto at Christmas can be a tedious affair. Generally, if you hit a D and stay on that, or mirror the sopranos by a third, you’ve done your work. I used to do my math homework while hitting the same monotonous note for the verses of “Angels We Have Heard On High.” However, the alto line for “Carol of the Bells” is exciting, dangerous, and intricate … and if you memorize it, I’m pretty sure you can still work on fractions before tomorrow’s class.
— Emily C. A. Snyder
P. D. James’ Children of Men
For a spiritually martial Christmas, I like Children of Men, by P. D. James, for its exploration of the world-overturning Christmas message, “The Christ is born of the Virgin Mary!” It’s hardly a white Christmas, but it’s perhaps closer in tone to the nativity as experienced by a pilgrim mother, a fatherly escort in the escape to Egypt, and thrones shaken by divine Providence. For me, it’s unromantic hope in grim world.
— Fr David Poecking
The Muppet Christmas Carol
You can’t beat The Muppet Christmas Carol for pure festive delight. The original story by Dickens is the great modern fable, a sentimental but hard-hitting morality tale which will be read as long as there are English speakers, and the addition of songs and jokes works surprisingly well. Michael Caine is outstanding as Scrooge, playing the role straight as a die despite sharing the greater part of his screen time with puppets.
Bob Dylan and Pope Leo the Great
David Mills asked me for one recommendation, but since he’s been such a good little boy this year, here are two Trad classics:
Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart (2009): a beguiling mix of kitschy novelties, sentimental standards, and traditional Christian profundity (so much like Christmas itself then). Worth the price — all proceeds go to homeless charities — to hear him growl out O Come All Ye Faithful with more Latin than many parishes hear in a year.
On the topic of all-time greats speaking in Latin … be sure to check out Pope Leo the Great’s Sermon 21. Think of it as the TED talk version of his longer treatise on the Incarnation (‘Leo’s Tome’). A true masterpiece of theology, homiletics, and pastoral solicitude (it’s very short: fifth-century families had turkeys in the oven, and kids desperate to get back to their XBoxes, too).
— Stephen Bullivant
JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Much too long to read on Christmas, but for me a Christmas reminder that a Love superintends the world, when everything seems to be falling apart. Sam, the faithful and persevering friend, lying awake when his and Frodo’s journey seems most hopeless: “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a bright star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
— David Mills
The Grinch (Jim Carrey version)
I love The Grinch, the movie with Jim Carey. It is a story that most people know and saw at Christmas time, but the movie made a new impression on me after losing my oldest son to suicide. In the aftermath of that loss, I found myself not wanting anything to do with the traditional Christmas full of joyful Christmas carols and the hustle and bustle of shopping, but I also felt lonely those feeling. The Grinch helped me see that trauma can make all those “normal” Christmas things seem annoying and it is through relationships that the annoyance softens. My granddaughter, my son’s oldest child, is my Cindy Lou Who.
— Leticia Ochoa Adams
Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home
Overshadowed by the more famous (and better) A Christmas Carol, this story nonetheless has its own unique charms. The fairytale motif that here replaces the ghost story is not as strong, but there are elements of drama, such as disguises and secret-keeping, which keen readers will note as sort of workshopped versions of techniques Dickens would eventually deploy in A Tale of Two Cities, fifteen years later. And while the villain Tackleton may not be as memorable as Scrooge, the Peerybingles are every bit as winsome as the Cratchits!
— Joseph Grabowsky
“Christmas Canon” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra will always hold a special place in my heart. I was married on Christmas Eve and actually walked down the aisle to this song. The lyrics get me every time…. “This night we pray our lives will show, this dream He had, each child still knows.”
—Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa
Bach’s Großer Herr, o starker König.
In 1734, as part of his duties as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, J.S. Bach combined earlier and new compositions into a new six-part work, his “Christmas Oratorio.” After its initial performance, it was forgotten until 1857, like a lot of Bach’s music. It’s hard to imagine a better sub-five minute exposition of the mystery of the Incarnation than Großer Herr, o starker König.
Großer Herr, o starker König,
Great Lord, O mighty king,
Liebster Heiland, o wie wenig
dearest savior, O how little
Achtest du der Erden Pracht!
you regard earthly splendor
Der die ganze Welt erhält,
He who maintains the whole world
Ihre Pracht und Zier erschaffen,
and created its glory and adornment
Muss in harten Krippen schlafen
must sleep in a hard crib.
— Roberto Rivera
The song “Hallelujah,” a duet featuring Carrie Underwood and John Legend. I heard this song on the radio while looking at Christmas lights over the weekend and was startled by its beauty. I’ve listened to it all week, and the soaring harmonies seem more beautiful each time. It is pure joy.
— Alexandra DeSanctis
The Little Drummer Boy
I’ve always loved “The Little Drummer Boy” (or, “Carol of the Drum”). It is a moral lesson, by which I mean to say it contains and discloses something like the secret to happiness: Trust in God *and* give your best. It does not promise that you will be happy, even if you do both perfectly (an impossible proposition this side of Heaven), but shows how the willing work of both makes us capable of felicity; and God is always willing for us.
— Christopher Altieri
Diana Hendry’s Christmas on Exeter Street
My favorite Christmas story is ‘Christmas on Exeter Street’ by Diana Hendry, illustrated by John Lawrence. It’s a ridiculous children’s book about a generous family who invite their friends and relatives over for Christmas, and then give a couch to a homeless woman, and then start taking in people who were caught outside in a snowstorm. The next thing you know their home is crammed with friends and strangers sleeping on shelves and in the bathtub and on the
mantelpiece, and Santa is sitting on the doorstep with his boots off, counting on his fingers and toes to make sure everyone gets a gift.
This silly story is the essence of Christmas to me: welcoming, giving and loving to the point of madness.
— Mary Pezzulo
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