Sharing Christ Through the Beauty of Sacred Carols

These Christmas carols are becoming less familiar with each generation — we must do what we can to pass along these masterpieces

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Song of the Angels,” 1881
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Song of the Angels,” 1881 (photo: Public Domain)

Several years ago, just before Christmas, I heard a knock at my front door and walked down the stairs to greet my Jewish violin student, who had just arrived for her weekly lesson. Before opening the door, I thought, “Shall I invite her to play Christmas carols?”

This was not the first time I had pondered the idea. Since her first lesson four years ago, I had always wanted to ask the same question before Christmas but hesitated. After all, I reasoned, she and her family were deeply involved in their faith and always re-scheduled lessons that conflicted with Jewish holy days. Although my other students enjoyed playing Christmas carols, I thought playing sacred Christian music during the season of Hanukkah might offend her religious sensibility. 

But this Christmas was different. As she lifted her violin and stood in front of the music stand to begin the lesson, an inner stirring urged me to speak, and so I finally asked, “Would you like to play Christmas carols?” With unexpected enthusiasm, her eyes lit up as she looked at me, smiling, and replied, “Yes!”

What a lovely surprise, hearing her launch into Joy to the World for the first time, playing with energy I had never experienced from her. I harmonized on my own violin, enjoying the tune as if playing it for the first time as well. Reaching the end, she turned the page, eager to begin the next carol, and read the title aloud, “Angels We Have Heard on High.” I asked, “Have you heard this before?” “Yes, lots of times,” she replied, and lifted her violin to begin.

Each Christmas, I pray that God will use the beauty of sacred carols to sow seeds of faith in my students' hearts. The desire is rooted in my own experience of growing up and singing and performing carols not only at Mass, but in our home as well. It seemed there were always carols streaming in the background from recordings, playing on the stereo. My senses were stimulated and inspired by performances from ensembles including the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Royal Philharmonic and the great choirs of England. As I took in the repetitive, haunting mode of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” it helped me to better understand the longing of those praying for the coming of the Messiah. The gentle lilt of “The First Noel” expressed for me the presence of the Baby Jesus and the joy of the angels’ announcement of his birth “to certain poor shepherds on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.”

With Dad leading the way on viola, as a family, we often gathered with our respective stringed instruments, seated before music stands in the living room, and played carols together. It was great fun. But I had to wait until age 7, when I could finally read music well enough to join my siblings, all older and much more proficient than me. My first experience, sitting second violin, was especially humbling. “Count!” my poor Dad again pleaded, halting the group, and looking toward me as he pulled his viola out from under his chin and rested it on his knee. Seated nearby, my sister reached over with the tip of her cello bow and touched the little white note in my music. “A half note, right?” Dad reiterated. “Right, it gets two beats,” I replied, determined to count “one, two” the next time. Finally succeeding, the momentary struggle gave way to the thrill of playing with my family and of bringing the music I loved so much to life with my own violin and bow.

The same memory recently returned as my third-grade student packed up his instrument at the end of the lesson, proud to have cleared the rhythmic hurdle in Silent Night. “Now I can play this for my class tomorrow!” he said, grabbing his jacket and running out the door. He was beaming. A few days later, a beginning ninth-grade student learned how to play swift, energetic staccato bow strokes to express the joy of Good King Wenceslaus, a pleasant revelation to her. When I suggested she play this and other carols for her family on Christmas and invite them to sing along, she immediately agreed, “Oh, that won't be a problem. They love to sing!”

A sadness to me, as our secularized culture more and more dismisses Christ from public expression during Christmas, I find that sacred carols are becoming less and less familiar to my students. As a remedy, I do what I can during lessons to pass along these masterpieces. I may never know if or how my prayers for seeds of faith to be sown were answered, but perhaps I was once given a small hint. As my Jewish violin student finished her lesson that day and walked out the door, she turned once more to say good-bye, and for the first time added, “Merry Christmas!” 

And the very same to all.