In hindsight, the haunting started well before the holiday season, but the Christmas carols were the first undeniable sign. I haven’t been a practicing Christian in nearly fifteen years, and I hadn’t sung a religious carol in about that long. But all through my childhood, they were part of the fabric of winter. A bit before the beginning of Advent, my mom would dig out a cassette album of traditional carols, and she’d play it most evenings while cooking dinner.
I always loved these songs much more than the secular stuff. I liked that you can hear just how old their roots are – the slightly atonal harmonies, the erratic grammar, the weird symbolic holdouts of indigenous Europe. (Oh, the holly and the ivy!) The medieval sound of those melodies was intrinsic to my experience of the season, and to my sense of being Catholic, part of a cultural lineage.
Like I said, I haven’t been a real Catholic in a very long time. But this past December, spurred by nostalgia one evening, I found the album of carols online and listened to the whole thing. Then I listened to it again and sang along. I felt a little strange singing Christian songs, even such blatantly pagan ones. Mostly, though, it was comforting.
But after Christmas and the carols came a more sinister ghostly visitation: the hymns. Suddenly all sorts of regular hymns have started wafting out from the attic corners of my memory. I’ll wake up with an obscure scrap of verse in my head, and there it will stick all day, rubbing like a rock in my shoe until I manage to recall the rest of the lyrics. Or a hymn will possess me while I’m folding laundry, my traitorous voice absently humming in rhythm: Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, Allelu-Alleluia!
Part of my discomfort with all this involuntary joyful noise is the knowledge of how a Christian might interpret it. Clearly Jesus is shepherding me back to the flock through the use of subliminal musical messaging; all I have to do is heed the call. (Rejoice and be glad!) And this theory does have a certain magnetic force to it – a force of both attraction and repulsion, the sensation of my skin recoiling from an intangible touch. Or the sensation of hairs stirring when you glimpse something you thought was long dead and buried.