With the increase of mind-numbing songs that passed for Christmas music, I noticed a few years ago a hunger in me for a melodic reminder of what Christmas was all about (cue the stage lights for Charlie Brown and Linus). Like pink aluminum Christmas trees, contemporary Christmas songs seemed so far from celebrating the birth of our Savior!
I began to listen more closely to versions of traditional carols played during the Christmas season, paying attention to the words rather than just humming along with the familiar melodies. It started with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” As I listened to it one day while driving alone, the line Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel left me in awe of how God keeps his promises. I kept coming back to that line—and the faithfulness of God—whenever Christmas started to feel heavy and chore-like. Christmas is about God’s ultimate promise, kept.
Another year it was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent.” I was drawn in by the haunting music; I had become spoiled over the years by sparkling but shallow tunes that sang of Christmas “magic.” I looked up the lyrics and marveled at the reverent worship for a worthy God and was reminded again of how my flesh desires to celebrate in worldly ways. Satisfying self with material pleasures leaves no room for humble adoration. Alleluia, Lord Most High!—indeed.
Bing Crosby’s collection of classic Christmas tunes seemed to go in one ear and out the other most Christmases, but one year “O Come, All Ye Faithful” took on a new depth for me. Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing was straight out of Scripture (John 1:14). In the beauty of those timeless words, I recognized again a promise from centuries earlier being fulfilled in a tiny baby. Christmas gives us real reason to be joyful and triumphant!
And another year, as I watched the Peanuts gang sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” to Charlie Brown, the line God and sinners reconciled leaped out at me. It was soul-filling confirmation that the baby born in Bethlehem was the Savior who would forever close the gap between a holy God and depraved humanity. Christmas is about reconciliation, faithfully predicted and provided.
Not long ago, another line of a favorite carol became very real to me.
On Christmas Eve 2021, I sank into a church pew among flickering candles, soft piano music, and fellow worshippers. I was exhausted but so desperate to be there; depleted and work-weary from the Christmas retail season, a dry and hardened sponge in dire need of living water.
That year, a first for me in over 20 years, I had worked full-time right up until Christmas. There was hardly time to decorate, I baked nothing (let alone dinner), all my shopping was done online in stolen moments before and after work, and Christmas cards…. well, I had plans to creatively re-package them as New Year’s Cards.
A sudden change in management (two months before Christmas) at the specialty gift shop where I worked had brought new stresses, personality conflicts, and (a lot) more responsibility for me. Throughout the busy season, I vowed I would not let the situation at work ruin Christmas for me. But the Advent devotional I attempted to read each morning and carols that shared good tidings of great joy competed with Mariah Carey on repeat at the store all day, every day. And even though our store was a Christian non-profit, that did not prevent personal conflicts from showing through the tinsel. It took everything I had not to succumb to hopelessness, frustration, and exhaustion during “the most wonderful time of the year.”
As I sat in the pew on that Christmas Eve, I closed my eyes during “Silent Night” and laid it all before the Lord: the guilt I felt for being glad (GLAD, I tell you!) that Christmas was almost over, and my lack of grace for people so painfully revealed during what was supposed to be a loving and generous time of year. I felt ashamed, my sin was ugly and not wrapped in pretty paper.
Then it hit me that this is exactly why Jesus came. In that pew, I came face to face with my sin, my flaws, my need … and face to face with my Savior. Again.
As I listened to the Christmas story read from the stage in multiple languages, I was reminded of how big, how global, and how he is over all. And how he cares for all. So much so that he gave his only son, a pure and innocent baby, to be born only to die, a pure and innocent man—fully human, fully God—to redeem us.
To redeem me.
The carol that had been playing in my mind as the holiday season wound up at work—playing louder than “Last Christmas”— was “O Holy Night.” As I approached the finish line of retail’s busiest season, I kept thinking of the phrase The weary world rejoices.
The weariness I had been feeling was not just physical or mental, it was the very burden of sin.
And yet the carol reminded me that the whole world, not just me, can rejoice: our Savior has come!
How about you? Does Christmas sometimes expose your not-so-sparkly side? Whether you are feeling the weight of personal struggles or are groaning with creation, whether your burden is for your people or other image-bearers around the globe, may the Christmas songs of old bring you a fresh reminder of the truths of Scripture: You can rejoice. You can have hope. There is a Savior, born to you.
“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”John 16:33
Cheryl Esper Balcom
Cheryl Esper Balcom is a sinner saved by grace who encourages others in God’s great grace at cherylesperbalcom.com. She is the author of Winds of Grace: Losing my Father, Surrendering Control, and Growing in Faith. Cheryl and her husband Jim have four grown children, one daughter-in-love, and one delightful granddaughter. She enjoys walking, reading, camping, and a little coffee in her creamer. You can follow her at CherylEsperBalcom.com