Melancholy Christmas

Melancholy Christmas

We moved to Three Rivers, Michigan, 13 years ago during a snowy winter to live in a cottage on Pleasant Lake. The cold arrived quickly and silently that year; the lake froze into a sheet of glass, providing us a vast window into the underwater world on the lake’s bottom. In the weeks leading up to Christmas that year, Over the Rhine’s The Darkest Night of the Year was the perfect and constant soundtrack to our wintry hermitage.

I wrote a review of the album in 2002 for catapult magazine:

Over the Rhine, a great rock band from Ohio, released a Christmas album about six years ago that runs against the grain of most Christmas recordings I’ve ever heard. Instead of a collection of happy Christmas ditties, uninspired traditional arrangements and sappy new Christmas originals, OTR’s The Darkest Night of the Year is a work that evokes wonder and invites reflection. Put simply, there are no sleigh bells on the entire recording.

The band uses acoustic instruments, guitar, piano, cello and bass, to set the quiet, contemplative tone…. Over the Rhine captures the quiet, less stressful side of Christmas and encourages the listener to take a few minutes to ponder the miracle of a virgin birth, the miracle of a boy who was both God and man.

A lot has changed for us in Three Rivers since that first contemplative winter. We helped open a fair trade store in the historic downtown, worked for five years at Calvin College in the Student Activities Office, renovated an apartment in our historic building, purchased an old elementary school in town, started the slow work of bringing an abandoned building back to life, and learned how to grow food (still working on that). Kirstin started working full-time at a local retreat center, and we launched a new online magazine. I wouldn’t necessarily call our current rhythm contemplative.

A lot has changed for Over the Rhine, too. The band’s personnel has shifted significantly since they recorded Darkest Night; instead of a full band, they are now the married duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Berquist with a revolving cast of supporting musicians. Their marriage almost fell apart, causing them to cancel their tour in 2004 to “[struggle] with the stuff of staying together” (apparent on 2005’s Drunkard’s Prayer). And they recently purchased a 140-year-old barn in rural Ohio to create a performing arts center that will serve as their creative headquarters for the future.

Throughout the years, though, the band has continuously recorded new, beautiful Christmas music. They released Snow Angel in 2006 and Blood Oranges in the Snow in 2014. The music has shifted from the ambient sonic landscapes of Darkest Night to musical love letters to the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The newer albums feature lighter moments (some with a few sleigh bells splashed in), but there’s still a wonderful mix of melancholy, longing, and joy throughout. The lyrical allusion to “Jingle Bells” in “One Olive Jingle” gives way to “We’re Gonna Pull Through,” which acknowledges faithfulness in the quotidian. This music can be playful, but it always returns to wistfulness and contemplation. It invites the listener to slow down, to notice the small things that make a life worth living together, to find joy in the ridiculous.

The other day, a friend said she didn’t always like Over the Rhine’s Christmas music because it makes her sad when she listens to it. I wondered if my melancholic default was the primary reason I like these albums so much. But I think there’s more to it than that.

As I was writing this piece, news of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, started trickling into my Twitter feed. “No, no, no, no,” I thought. “Not again,” as I buried my face in my hands. The words from Over the Rhine’s “Changes Come” on 2003’s Ohio album came immediately to mind:

I wanna have our baby
Some days I think that maybe
This ol’ world’s too fucked up for any firstborn son

There is all this untouched beauty
The light, the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone?

Some days, as the brokenness becomes too much, I feel like I can only utter these words alongside the band:

Jesus come
Turn the world around
Jesus come
Lay my burden down

Jesus come
Turn this world around
Jesus come
Bring the whole thing down, yeah

But I know that waiting on the world to change isn’t how change happens and that sending our thoughts and prayers to victims of the latest unthinkable tragedy isn’t enough. We need to be the answers to our prayers by building a different world, being the change we want to see in our cities, on our farms, and everywhere in between. We need to raise barns, restore historic buildings, cultivate healthy soil, build genuine relationships, and create spaces for imaginative options to flourish.

Christmas celebrates the radical inbreaking of God in the flesh, incarnating the holy call to be fully human in ways we still have trouble grasping. Shouldn’t Christmas music allude to the vision for flourishing embodied in a refugee baby born in a dangerous time thousands of years ago? Shouldn’t it recognize that all is not right with the world and cause us to long for something better, while celebrating that which is good? It’s a tricky business and few get it right—which makes me all the more thankful for Over the Rhine’s work this time of year.