Christmas carols bring hope in a hopeless time. No matter, we’ll keep singing – with tissues handy

Justine Toh wrote for The Guardian about why Christmas carols make her cry.

At church, we feel our fragile hopes, together. Raising your voice along with others somehow redirects the gloom, even redeems it a little.

I tell myself I’m not a crier, but Christmas carols always prove me wrong.

I’m old school. By “carols”, I don’t mean the jolly background tunes to your Christmas shop, still less the shiny, happy singalong that is Carols in the Domain. It sounds bah humbug but I’m a purist who’s stingy with my limited tears. Those songs won’t make me weep. Trad carols, however, will.

This doesn’t mean I’m only into carols sung by church choirs in robes. I love a bit of Christmas crooning from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby too. But if those guys make me misty-eyed, it’s from nostalgia for a simpler, less complicated time – a claim that’s total rubbish, obviously. But tell that to my tear ducts.

Which, I get, people could equally say of me when I start leaking tears in church: that I’m buying into a nice story but certainly not a true one. Perhaps. If recent censuses are any indication, fewer and fewer Australians find themselves among the faithful.

But carols have a subtle way of diagnosing the human condition. Maybe they’re also clued into its cure?

One carol reliably gets me going: O Little Town of Bethlehem, covered by everyone from Mariah Carey to Elvis to Nat King Cole, though one version by Sarah McLachlan is especially beautiful. Its quiet dreaminess never fails to put me in a melancholic mood.

For it’s all too easy to sentimentalise Jesus’ birth – which this carol might be guilty of too. We prefer sweet nativity scenes of the baby Jesus and the animals in the manger, not so much the subsequent massacre of infant boys ordered by King Herod, according to the biblical account, so Jesus won’t challenge his rule. What the carol calls the “everlasting light” of Jesus enters a grim picture of human darkness.

Then there’s the biblical claim that Jesus is the “prince of peace”, although these days, the town of his birth happens to be next door to one of the most volatile and intractable conflicts on earth. The gap between the hope of peace and our warring reality feels impossibly large.

Yet this is where the carol gets to me most, through the line: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”. You don’t need to be a believer for talk of mingled hopes and fears to hit you in the gut. The older I get, the more both sprout and grow more conspicuous, like the white strands I keep finding in my dark hair. That can’t just be me. When I sing that line, I feel the tremulousness of my hopes and how easily they could succumb to my fears that are – no exaggeration – legion. I dare anyone on the same daily diet of bad news stories to feel differently.

But I don’t sing alone. Raising my voice along with others at church somehow redirects the gloom, even redeems it a little. I may feel the ache of my own vulnerability but when I hear others sing along with me, I know that it is shared.

At church, we feel our fragile hopes, together.

O Little Town of Bethlehem presses me – us – to imagine that despite appearances, there is infinitely more going on than it seems. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. The “thee” refers to Bethlehem. The idea is that this smallish and unimportant place is nevertheless a scene of staggeringly cosmic significance because it is where God draws near. Though a helpless baby, Jesus is supposed to be God who is with us. It’s a wild claim: that all of history hinges on this point, even in our increasingly “unhinged” world, according to UN secretary-general António Guterres. And no one saw it coming.

Looking around at others at my church, we remind each other that the darkness, however dark, can’t put out the light.

There is always a God-given possibility that, behind an apparently hopeless situation, the march of unseen and unexpected goodness in the world goes on.

For those who believe this, all that remains is for them to do what they can, in big and small ways, to lighten people’s loads. You don’t have to be religious to do that, but what the believers bring is the hope that God is doing his bit too. Such gestures feel embarrassingly small, dwarfed by the need that’s out there. Then again, so does sending a baby to do God’s work.

Poet Emily Dickinson calls hope “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul”. “Perches” feels exactly right – because hope is so often uncertain, and things could go either way. The future of faith in this country similarly seems to hang in the balance, as pews feel emptier than they once did.

No matter. We’ll keep singing – with tissues handy. Things have seemed worse before.

Justine Toh is senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared on The Guardian.