During the early ‘80s, when I moonlighted as a disc jockey at a country music station in Rapid City, South Dakota, my Advent was defined by one song and Christmas by another.
This was a difficult time in our young, growing family. Illness among children, death of loved ones, and paychecks that never stretched as far as we hoped marked the season. If spirits hadn’t already been submerged in tundra, one Advent night during my shift I played the most depressing Christmas song ever: “If We Make it Through December” by Merle Haggard.
He sings about being laid off from his job and “why my little girl don’t understand why Daddy can’t afford no Christmas here.” Although that song is the antithesis of the hope we should be experiencing during Advent, it resonated with me on several levels.
I was fortunate to have a full-time job, but unfortunate in that every year, a couple of days before Christmas, my boss, whose lack of Christmas spirit made Ebenezer Scrooge appear as angelic as a child in the school Christmas pageant, would tell me the budget was tight and he probably couldn’t afford to keep me on staff.
Thankfully, he did keep me, but his annual alarm during those years sucked most of the hope out of Advent – until the night of another air shift.
Hundreds of artists have recorded “The First Noel,” but on this night I played an a cappella version by Emmylou Harris. The words, of course, were the same as they’d always been, but it was the pure, unencumbered sound that made me pay attention to the message, made me begin shedding the effect of Merle‘s dirge and replacing it with the hopefulness in Emmylou’s voice.
It didn’t happen quickly. There were still “If We Make It Through December” moments, like scrounging for the last few dollars needed to pay off the Kmart layaway, but there was enough spark in “The First Noel” to figuratively rekindle the Advent candles and to allow me to focus on hope. We got through that December, and the ones in the more than 30 years since.
I refocus annually to prevent slipping away from “The First Noel” and back into “If We Make it Through December.” That focus is on the One we believe is the reason for the season – the Savior who is our true hope. When I do that, Emmylou’s song speaks to my heart and dispels Merle’s despairing words.
With a week remaining in Advent, there is still time to hope, time to prayerfully realize that you will make it through December and that the light, sound and experience of that first noel will be as real for you as it was for those angels and shepherds more than 2,000 years ago.
May you find hope in these final days of Advent, and may you embrace and celebrate that hope throughout the Christmas season.