My parents’ house has two Christmas trees. One is the show tree. It’s color coordinated and lit in white lights. It stands in the front window, and the presents that lay under it are meticulously matched to its color scheme. The other is kept in the family room. It’s a mishmash of colored lights and ornaments, some handmade from more than 40 years ago, tattered construction paper and yarn. Some were stocking stuffers from ages past, plastic figures of NBA stars dunking on translucent backgrounds.
When my siblings and I get old enough, my mother boxes up a few ornaments, generally ones made for us or ones we crafted ourselves, and sends them from the place that had been home to the place we now call home. I decorate my tree with them. I make the recipes my family has always made. I wrap the presents just the way my mother taught me. I go to Christmas Eve service, but I do not believe in God. I’m just there for the music. The music is enough.
For many, the holidays become a careful blend of what has always been done with the new contours of your life as it is now. The trick involves somehow honoring who you were without undermining who you turned out to be. This is rarely an easy line to walk.
In 2012, the Pew Research Center released a study examining trends in the values of American citizens over the previous 25 years. Participants answered questions about their moral codes, politics, personal finances, and prejudices. In the midst of this hail of data, a notable trend became clear: Young people are losing their religion. Moreover, as this generation collectively ages, it doesn’t grow closer to belief, as past generations have. It actually moves farther away from embracing religion, a trend that flies in the face of all prior polling.
These unchurched individuals are collectively called “the unaffiliated.” They believe in “nothing in particular.” But as the numbers released by Pew maintain, this wasn’t always the case for the Millennials. As they’ve aged, they’ve lost the faith they were raised in and become something else: a population uncertain that there even are definite answers to the questions religion—particularly religion in the U.S.—has always purported to answer. It is difficult to believe in something that espouses certainty in an uncertain world, something that suggests faith as a panacea to doubt. It is difficult to face a holiday season built around the beliefs of a life you’ve left behind, but Sufjan Stevens’ album Songs For Christmas makes all these things much easier to navigate.
Even though it consists of five separate EPs, Songs For Christmas is unassuming. Recorded over five years, the collection focuses most of its two-hour runtime on a mixture of new Christmas compositions and religious standbys that would be at home in any Protestant hymnal, all filtered through Stevens’ instrumentally eclectic, painfully sincere style. The result is a collection of songs that is both innocuous enough for your mom and acoustically varied enough for the typical music aficionado. But for individuals raised in the church who matured into something else entirely, Stevens’ songs invoke a nostalgia for a person you never turned out to be.
Having been produced originally as gifts for family and friends, the collection of EPs is fascinating as a way to look at Stevens’ growth as an artist. Where the earlier albums recorded among the releases of both mainstream albums Michigan and Seven Swans explore the more languid and acoustic side of Stevens’ repertoire, the later albums that coincide with the release of Illinois trend more experimental and upbeat, featuring more of the artist’s original compositions and mirroring the more refined sound of Illinois. All of which are decidedly different than the singer’s follow-up Christmas collection in 2012, which marks a huge departure in its decidedly non-secular nature, similar to the experimentation evidenced in 2010’s The Age Of Adz.
Each EP generally features great songs and a single, unequivocal gem. Often, it’s an exquisite rendition of a less showy song. On the second EP, it’s “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing,” a sleepy song that seeks grace and exudes warmth, remade into something folksy and communal. On the third, it’s an elaborate, inclusive version of “The Friendly Beasts” that details the contributions of the stable animals at the birth of Christ. It’s akin to a loving lullaby wrapped up with a Christmas bow. And on the fourth EP, one of Stevens’ finest accomplishments, is a crooning, delicate interpretation of “Joy To The World” stripped of all artifice and bombast, a song reborn as something full of awe and love.
Though he avoids discussing the topic as often as possible in interviews, Stevens is a Christian, a fact that seems evident to anyone who’s spent any time at all listening to his music. His renditions of classic hymns are pure and clear. They appear deceptively simple, but quickly meander toward the decidedly unique, layer after layer of instrumentation and melody building atop each other—or, in some cases, dropping out entirely.
Some songs crop up repeatedly, as if a single iteration were not enough. Most notably is the recurrence of the aching, desolate “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Stevens returns to the song three separate times on the collection, each visitation a haunting and insistent plea. The song itself dates back to the 12th century and serves as both a plea for salvation and a directive to rejoice. The lyrics speak of Israel as a lonely captive, of it mourning in exile, of the gloomy clouds of night, of death’s dark shadows. But each verse is concluded the same: Rejoice! Again and again, the song demands your joy, Stevens’ voice hollow and the wind instruments solemn. It is confusing and desperate. It is most religious experiences in a nutshell.
It was my favorite Christmas carol as a child. The holidays are a strange time for a depressive 8-year-old, and “O Come”’s discordant melody would often thrum in my chest as I wondered how a song commanding me to rejoice could sound so sad, and why feeling sad felt so right, a conflict only rectified as an adult listening to Stevens’ version. Church had always felt like a confusing place, where you were to have the faith of a child but not the naturally inquisitive nature. It too often seemed a place where everyone was welcome—except those who deviated from your beliefs by even an iota. That’s why it always felt so right to be immersed in music that seemed contradictory and conflicting, to be caught in the everlasting space between the minor key and the word “Rejoice!” In a senseless place, it made sense.
For me, that’s what Songs For Christmas captures most intuitively, even if by accident. You can be unaffiliated. You can be unchurched. You can actively not believe. But there can still be comfort in this music, whether you left it behind or are discovering it for the first time. There’s a stark, chilly beauty when listening to Songs For Christmas as a lapsed Christian. It’s that sense of not being a Christian, but listening to a Christian, who nonetheless makes his money not singing about Jesus, now singing songs about Jesus and reminding you of the small points of light that existed, even for you, even for me, in the darkness of faith. It’s being wistful for something you never loved and recognizing that it’s still a part of your history. It’s being nostalgic for a you that never was. You might have made peace with her absence, but a part of you will always remember waiting for her to arrive, and hoping you’d find her by hovering just long enough in the space between a minor key and the word “Rejoice,” to allow angels to slip in.