Christmas seems to arrive earlier and earlier with each passing year. Like most Americans, I used to roll my eyes as stockings, ornaments, and candy canes appeared on store shelves, even while jack-o’-lanterns still sat on neighborhood porches and costume-clad children eagerly scampered in the dark in search of free candy. I abruptly switched channels whenever my car’s radio blasted a chorus of “Jingle Bells” in early November and I refused to decorate the tree or belt carols in the shower until the day after Thanksgiving.
However, as I sat in rehearsal on a Tuesday night in early October after the first Atlanta Master Chorale Concert of the 2019-2020 season, it suddenly occurred to me that my stance on the appropriate spacing of various holiday festivities was more than a little hypocritical. As we started singing through “Carol of the Bells” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” I was suddenly aware of the glaringly obvious fact that choirs always begin their Christmas preparations long before any department store starts arranging its festive annual window display. Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year for musicians, and with limited rehearsals and mountains of sheet music to master, preparations for Christmas productions usually begin as soon as the curtain closes on the final autumn performance. In my twenty-two years of singing, I can even recall times when I started rehearsing Christmas repertoire in August. How could I shake my proverbial fist at Hallmark, Macy’s, and even the local Kroger, while I, too, joyfully prepared for Christmas at absurdly early times of the year?
Several days later, with Halloween approaching, I heard Bing Crosby crooning on the radio while driving, I squelched the urge to groan at the anachronism and reminded myself about the pile of holly, jolly Atlanta Master Chorale repertoire that I had placed on the back seat of my car. Well, I might as well lean into it, I thought to myself as I turned up the volume and began to sing.
Why do we view the early arrival of Christmas as something negative and purely commercialized? I recognize that the actual season holds religious significance for many, including myself. I also recognize that there is a unique beauty—a certain magic in the air—that is only palpable at Christmastime. However, perhaps there is something to be said for trying to retain the Christmas spirit throughout the year. Regardless of one’s spiritual traditions and personal beliefs, we can all identify with the overarching Christmas message of hope, joy, comfort, and light in a world enshrouded in despair, injustice, fear, and doubt. Christmas reminds us that love and mercy still exist in the midst of hate and violence, and that miracles can emerge from the bleakest and humblest circumstances. In this sense, the message of Christmas is not truly limited to one short season. We can find hope, joy, comfort, and light throughout the year, if we take the time to look for it.
I have found Christmas many times along my journey through medical school. Christmas is an ICU patient who could have died from a brain hemorrhage, but who is instead recovering so well that she can crack jokes and offer me a wry smile when I examine her on morning rounds. Christmas is the determination and gratitude with which a patient squeezes my hands during a painful diagnostic procedure, empowered by the knowledge that she does not have to face this experience alone. Christmas is the giggling of a little girl, who watches with dancing eyes as I examine her doll with my stethoscope before beginning the actual checkup. Christmas is the breakfast tray that helps transform an anxious homeless COPD patient into a new friend, who accepts treatment and ultimately leaves the hospital with a permanent placement and hope.
I have found Christmas in my daily life outside the confines of the hospital. Christmas is the laughter among dear friends and family over coffee, shared meals, or evenings spent binge-watching episodes of Stranger Things together. It is the clinking of champagne glasses at weddings and engagement parties. It is the golden glory of a sunrise and the twinkling of stars against the inky night sky. It is the food lovingly prepared by parents during even the briefest weekend trip home. It is a crisp autumn wind after long months of oppressive Atlanta humidity. It is a hug or a kind word after a hard day. It is the unexpectedly gracious driver who allows another car to switch lanes during rush-hour traffic.
I have also found Christmas in singing with the Atlanta Master Chorale each week. Christmas is the smiling faces of my fellow choristers, who always greet me with the same warmth and understanding—whether I waltz into rehearsal after a relaxing day, arrive in a zombie-like state of post-exam exhaustion, or tumble into my seat, frazzled and bleary-eyed from a day in the lab.
It is our fellowship— inside jokes born from sight-reading sessions, long conversations before rehearsals, and lifelong friendships formed during tours, backstage downtime, and all-day note crunch sessions. It is each singer’s physical, emotional, and spiritual dedication to the music-making experience. It is the unity that we represent when we sing perfectly in tune—achieving what often seems impossible in this inherently divisive world. It is the way that we collectively breathe life into the music on the page to inspire and uplift our audiences. Regardless of the repertoire or the time of year, every note that we sing embodies the true message of the Christmas season.
During my time in medical school, I have learned that although life is often arduous, messy, and painful, miracles can be found in unexpected places. As we are reminded at Christmastime, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This light continues to shine, even after the last carol is sung, the last present is unwrapped, and the last strands of lights are removed from each front yard. The spirit of Christmas lives on throughout the year—in our voices, and in our acts of love. This year, even if you have not started rehearsing Christmas repertoire between the months of August and October, I encourage you to open your hearts to this special season a little earlier than usual. Consider turning up the volume on your radio when you hear carols before Thanksgiving. Go ahead and start belting “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” in the shower, if you are so inclined. Come and join the Atlanta Master Chorale this December, as we lift our voices to proclaim the Christmas message of hope, joy, comfort, and light—a message for every time of the year. Look for the “Christmases” in your own lives, and delight in the small miracles that you witness each day. Celebrate the season, even before it truly begins, because the spirit of Christmas is already here.