The greatest Christmas carol in history was not written by Irving Berlin or Nat King Cole. The greatest carol is not “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “White Christmas” or even “Silent Night.” The greatest carol was composed 2,000 years ago by a pregnant teenage girl who was visiting her cousin Elizabeth.
Our guide assured us that it wasn’t very far, only about 15 minutes or so up the road. Maybe 20. We were on our way to Bassin-Bleu, one of Haiti’s most magnificent waterfalls. The sight of it, said our guide, would take our breath away. It was early in the morning.
In spite of my best intentions, somewhere around Halloween my ability to stay on top of things begins to unravel. It gets more and more difficult to wake up before the sun and harder to meet all the demands of each day, or even of the previous day. As things left undone accumulate and the hours of daylight diminish, a kind of lethargy sets in.
We did a lot of breathing through our teeth: “Hee, hee, hoo. Hee, hee, hoo. Hee, hee, hoo.” The instructor said this breathing would help mitigate the pain of labor, and it did, until we hit that thing called transition (the most intense phase of labor when even the strongest women momentarily lose faith in their ability to bring new life into the world).
On a nasty night, Christmas Eve 1965, members of my family walked into my father’s hospital room. We had just returned from my grandparents’ home, where we had celebrated a Swedish smorgasbord, caroled and opened presents. The sideboard boasted turkey, meatballs, limpa bread, inlagd sill, lutfisk, spritz cookies and svensk plum pudding.
The annunciation has attracted the attention of commentators for centuries. Medieval writers liked to embroider upon Luke’s bare-bones account, saying, for example, that when the angel Gabriel appeared, Mary was reading Isaiah 7, the prophet’s foretelling of the birth of Christ. Visual artists were also attracted to the scene.
John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth. The synoptic Gospels all say so, and the kerygma in Acts connects the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with that baptism. But although Mark seems to find it quite right that Jesus should have been among those who heeded John’s preaching, all the other evangelists seem discomfited by the suggestion that Jesus was somehow a disciple of this other preacher.
On the last weekend in September, I walked into a department store and was blinded by the sparkle of Christmas lights, ornaments and lawn Santas. Apparently in the stores, the longer the waiting period the better: it means more sales, increased profits and hopefully more satisfied investors. The market can always come up with another sales gimmick to entice us into the Christmas spirit.