Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to you.
What makes the perfect piece of music? Is it the songwriting? The production? Silky piano chords, rhythmic thuds of the drums? Is it the way the band’s lead singer tugs at his guitar strings like it’s his last chance at freedom? The truth is, while all these are solid suggestions, music is a deeply personal experience and for that singular reason, the universal “perfect” song, or musician, doesn’t exist. I have a friend who swears by hyper-pop duo 100 gecs, and another who thinks they are one of the worst byproducts of human evolution and progress.
My first memory of actively participating in Christmas celebrations is practising for carol services at school. From croaked renditions of hymns extolling the wonders of the Saviour’s birth to flapping my arms as Angel Gabriel in a re-enactment of the Christmas story, music has been the most important part of the yuletide season for me. That, and jollof rice, of course. This experience isn’t particular to me either. Due to the global nature of the holiday and the imposing nature of the “Christmas spirit” through advertisements; work and school events, music concerts and festivals, memories of carols pop up in almost everybody’s mind when Christmas is mentioned - no matter how disconnected a person may feel from the celebrations.
I’ll admit some of the magic of Christmas has been lost on me as I have grown older. Juggling work, school, expectations while trying to find yourself in this sea called life is a very distracting experience, taking your mind off things that came naturally before. As a kid, my major problems were things solved by my parents, like food and clothes and TV. Now, as I assume responsibility for my life, I have lost that wonder and excitement for the season - Santa doesn’t bring gifts for me anymore, and honestly, that sucks. But childlike wonder and exhilaration aren’t the only things that make Christmas worthwhile. As I have grown mellow, the feverish eagerness has been replaced with a calm appreciation for things that have remained solid and true in an always-changing world. Things like Christmas carols.
What makes carols so special? Nostalgia is a popular answer. They’ve been around for so long, they remind everybody of a better, more innocent time. Our parents and grandparents all remember their childhoods and the song that marked decembers for good. Also, more importantly to me, from a critical standpoint, carols are some of the best-written pieces of music to exist. They are near flawless. To describe a miracle of such magnitude as a virgin conceiving and birthing the eventual saviour of all mankind takes some special songwriting talent and inspiration. For example, let’s take a look at the first stanza and chorus of one of my favourite hymns “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:
“O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appears.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.”
In thirty words and six lines, the composer manages to convey the desolation that Israel, and mankind by extension, lay in both physically, as they were under subjugation by the Romans, and spiritually because of sin and corruption that had taken over their hearts. However, the first stanza ends with the words “Until the Son of God appears” - showing that the birth of Jesus was the event to end all of the heartaches. The refrain twists the despair pervading the first verse into hope and joy: Rejoice, Israel - Immanuel shall come to thee - not ‘might’, or ‘may’, nor ‘could’; he shall.
Another great Christmas number is “O Holy Night”, a song that does a fantastic job in portraying the majesty of the moment of Christ’s birth. Written by Placide Cappeau, a wine seller from southern France, at the request of his local priest, it is one of the greatest and well-known carols of all time. Like the previous hymn, it recognises the birth in the manger as the turning point - the beginning of redemption for a world lying in sin and error. However, asides from hope, it compels the listener to worship and show reverence. What you are witnessing is not normal, it says. This night is divine, so fall on your knees and listen to the chorus of angels:
“O holy night! the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope- the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!”
What makes the perfect piece of music? For me, it’s a bunch of things: the lyrics and the memories they evoke. It is the flowing robes of the choir and the offkey voices of children without a care in the world. It is soft piano chords slowly building up to deliver a grandstand finish. It is the knowledge that despite everything that goes wrong in the world, red hats will fly out, Mariah Carey will top the charts, and children will keep believing in the fat man who manages to squeeze down chimneys half his width. It is the warmth of hope and peace that it gives me, a sweet contrast to the harmattan chill. It’s Christmas.