Christmas in the South is unlike Christmas anywhere else in America. While obviously there are many common factors that show up in Christmas festivities nationwide, there are features of a southern Christmas celebration which are truly unique.
For instance, it’s not always cold around Christmas day–in fact it probably won’t be this year. There are not many places in the country where you can go out two weeks before Christmas to cut down a Christmas tree and get bitten by a mosquito.
This makes it a bit strange for us southerners because so much of what adorns the season– Christmas cards and calendars, movies and songs–all presume some sort of snowy background. Around here you have a better chance of being run over by a reindeer that having a white Christmas.
Which brings to mind another unique aspect of Christmas in the South–our music. This week around the world churches and cathedrals will be filled with the strains of classical Christmas music. Whether it is Handel’s “Messiah,” or Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” or Mendelssohn’s “Elijah Chorus,” or Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” the music of Christmas is rich and profound.
And in the South we will hear some of that classical music as well, but that is not all. In addition to sacred music from Christmases past, we also have access to a great body of country Christmas music. Some of these songs are frivolous and fun, like “Grandma just got run over by a reindeer.” Some of them, however, are heart wrenching.
For instance, consider Alan Jackson’s song, “Angels Cried.” The song describes the birth of Jesus and the manger scene with all the usual characters in attendance, but in Jackson’s song he adds an angel. The angel weeps, the song informs us, because he knows what is going to happen to the child. The child becomes a man who suffers and dies on a cross.
Compare this to the biblical scene where angels burst into song after announcing Jesus’ birth. “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” they sing. And on earth, peace.
In the South we understand and express that joyful hope in our music, but we also have other music that reflects the pain and loss that comes with being human–even at Christmas time.
Grandma got run over by a reindeer allows us a moment to laugh and be childlike. The classics invite us to delve deep into the grandeur and mystery of God’s activities among us.
But the country songs of the South remind us that Christmas is sometimes hard. Simply because we put up a tree and go shopping does not means the difficulty of life magically turns to joy. In fact, sometimes the season actually makes our problems worse. The Christmas story offers hope for the ultimate resolution of our difficulties, but sometimes the pain of the moment must be endured with patience.
Alan Jackson may not be right about what the angels did, but he is right to remind us where the birth story ends. We start at a manger, but we end up at a cross. It is the same journey all human beings make in one way or another.
For some reason, here in the South, we are able to include that component of human suffering along side our Christmas joy. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because down here it’s doesn’t get cold enough for us to have snow on Christmas day.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.