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Eve of opportunity

by Dana Kelley | December 24, 2021 at 2:55 a.m.

Tomorrow is Christmas.

Though only three words long, that statement is not only loaded with meaning, but also brimming with implications, anticipations and ramifications.

It is perhaps the holiday that most embodies e pluribus unum, where so many diverse customs and traditions come together in one merry celebration. Woven from different times, ages, countries and cultures, they all center around the idea of a miracle involving God among us on a mission of love and redemption.

Like any event from a couple of millennia ago, the lore and legend of the Christmas story has been embellished over time. Faced with the absence of details, our human imagination and intellect often spur us to supply them.

At church a week ago, the pastor popped a Christmas quiz on the congregation. She posed some pretty simple multiple-choice questions, such as:

Jesus was born (a) at night, (b) in the morning, (c) at an unknown time.

Duh, right? The carols like "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night" spring instantly to mind. But the correct answer is c; there's no mention in the biblical accounts of the time of day.

Another question was: The angels (a) sang a beautiful song, (b) terrified farm workers, (c) told the wise men to go home another way. I sort of expected a "(d) all of the above" option to follow, but none came.

That's because the only right answer is b; the shepherds were indeed very afraid at the sight of angels. Carols like "Angels We Have Heard On High" have them singing, but the verb from the original account is that the heavenly host "said," not "sang." And the wise men were told in a dream, not by angels, to go back a different way.

Then there was this question: The posture of the shepherds when the angel appeared was (a) seated on the ground, (b) lying in the fields, (c) not mentioned. Again, the ingrained carols prompt responses--the shepherds "lay keeping their sheep" in "The First Noel," and are "seated" in "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night"--but the answer is c; there's no mention in the biblical record.

Other questions asked what the shepherds saw when they arrived (Jesus asleep on the hay, not crying or wrapped like a mummy) and what the weather was (moderate to warm, snowy or not mentioned), and most of them served to highlight that much of what we remember is from songs.

"On a cold winter's night that was so deep" is a fine close to a verse in a carol, but it's still literary fiction intended to enhance and dramatize a wonderful core story.

Indeed, behind each carol is an inspired author, writer or composer who used their talents to share and create inspiration for others. In many instances, the very stories behind the carols are themselves stirring and uplifting.

The hymn "Silent Night," for example, was the result of a mechanical problem with the organ on Christmas Eve in 1818 at a little church in Oberndorf, Austria. Panicked assistant pastor Joseph Mohr quickly penned the lyrics as a special make-do measure and gave them to local schoolmaster Franz Gruber (who doubled as church organist).

Gruber set the verses to music for two solo voices, chorus and guitar before the service that night, where it was played for the small audience of village congregants. Ironically, the organ repairman was also there for the service, and he took a copy of "Silent Night" home with him, which he shared with a touring troupe. Their renditions launched its widespread popularity.

But for the ear of a man who happened to be tinkering with a broken organ, the song sung by millions at candlelight Christmas Eve services everywhere might never have escaped that small Austrian church.

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was originally only one of a repertoire of 4,000 hymns published by Charles Wesley, who died 233 years ago. It was only after his lyrics were united with Felix Mendelssohn's melody--seven decades after Wesley's death--that this carol grew to become the Methodist co-founder's most famous hymn and a joyous holiday mainstay.

The magic of Christmas accommodates and invites modern, individual traditions on equal footing with ancient, world-renowned ones. The art of giving, the act of sacrificial love, the awe of "God with us" all transcend time and circumstance.

That's why even gimmicky attempts to further commercialize the holiday (think Rudolph, a Depression-era department store catalog character, or Elf on the Shelf, a toy based on a book about North Pole scout elves sent to observe and report to Santa on kids' behavior) can't really diminish Christmas.

It's a unique holiday whose spirit commands worldwide attention, but also infuses the lowliest households. Whose story is so monumental as to be literally Earth-changing, but also so humble that the meekest can personally embrace it.

Tomorrow is Christmas, but even more importantly, tomorrow is your Christmas. And just as with your own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, it's an opportunity.

May you find a way to make it meaningful and memorable, however you can, wherever you are.

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

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