Tag Archives: Christmas

The Cinch Review

Merry Christmas, You Beasts

Below, a photo of our little mutt, Billie, posing cooperatively and carefully amidst some very breakable Christmas ornaments (recycled from a previous Christmas photo session, in case anyone remembers).

Merry Christmas from a friendly beast

There were reports in the media earlier this year regarding a new book from Pope Benedict, the current commander-in-chief at the Vatican, titled “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” It was said that he had debunked some traditional notions regarding Christmas. One of those had to do with the specific year in which Jesus was born, to the effect that it was likely not in the year 1 AD, but rather in the year 5 or 6 BC. This fact is really nothing new (although it must have caused no end of confusion for calendar-makers back then: “Well, is he here yet or isn’t he here yet? We can’t cancel another print run!”)

The other reported-debunking was more controversial, however. It was widely broadcast just as in the following story: Continue reading Merry Christmas, You Beasts

The Cinch Review

Fairytale of New York

Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl
I just checked
the U.K. Top 40, and the song “Fairytale of New York,” by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, is at number 18, having fallen three spots from last week. That might sound like a weak performance, but not when you consider that it was originally released for the Christmas of 1987 (when it reached number 2) and that this is the tenth year since then in which it has charted. This also happens to be the 25th anniversary of that original release. (Oh boy.)

“Fairytale of New York” is assuredly a unique Christmas classic. It fairly dripped with greatness and with resonance on the day it was released, and the years that have passed have only magnified the resonance, till I daresay there are many tender souls out there who waste no time and begin their crying as soon as they hear the opening piano notes. Yours truly wouldn’t be one of them, not at all. I’m made of much tougher stuff, although I have little trouble relating to some of the major touchstones of the song, such as Ireland (having grown up there from about age 7 to 20) and New York City, where so many people come with their dreams, it being my favorite city in the world (despite everything) and the one I’m currently blessed to be able to live in.

The record “Fairytale of New York” has been pondered at length and talked about and documentary’d-about, probably to excess, as I’ve recently discovered, but I feel the urge to pay it some tribute and I’ll therefore do so regardless, although briefly. I think that one of the key elements of its magic (aside from the beautiful tune and great performance) is the absence of too much narrative detail in the lyric. There are just enough words used and images dropped in to evoke this couple, arriving as immigrants to New York in a bygone decade, wide-eyed and floating on their dreams, dreams which have then crumbled and left them in the worst kind of decrepitude, snarling bitter insults at one another through their drug and/or alcohol haze. Yet, in the end, they seem to know that they have nothing to hold onto but one another, and some kind of strange hope that still hovers over them, and is incarnate in the sound of those bells that are “ringing out for Christmas Day.” As a piece of songwriting (with which Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer tinkered for two years before finalizing) it’s an exquisitely-balanced exercise in the bittersweet, bringing the profane and the transcendent right up against one another and forcing them to shake hands. Continue reading Fairytale of New York

The Cinch Review

Advent Musings

Happy Chanukah to Jewish friends and readers, that festival having begun yesterday evening and continuing until next Sunday. Here in New York City one can have a tangible sense of the holiday being celebrated without being Jewish, due to the make up of the population, a sense which I must assume is pretty uncommon elsewhere. It is one of the nice things about this city.

Although (judging by appearances in the stores) it seems that Christmas began sometime in October, it is still weeks away. Yet, many Christians do continue to observe at least some of the traditions of the season known as Advent, a time of anticipation of the arrival of Jesus. It encompasses roughly four weeks in advance of December 25th, today counting as the second Sunday of this year’s Advent season. I’m far from being the religious historian or theologian to attempt to fully explain the tradition, which has many rich and varied aspects, but on a very basic level I would judge its purpose is to help in nurturing and recalling a sense of longing for the Messiah. This is a strange thing, and maybe all the more worthy of cherishing for that reason. People who grow up as Christians, whether in actuality or merely nominally to one degree or another, are naturally prone to taking the birth of Jesus for granted. It’s old-hat, even. Yeah, Jesus was born, whether it was 2012 years ago or a few years earlier. But we’ve moved beyond all that now. We’ve got other problems.

Advent offers a means of stepping back and remembering why the arrival of such a Savior was something for which to yearn. Then, the celebration of His arrival can be something more than rote and something more than just a religious holiday that coincides with the zenith of the retail year. It can rather be something that gives genuine relief to souls badly in need of it.

Advent has its own songs. Tunes like “Jingle Bells Will Be Ringing Soon” and “Santa Claus Is Beginning to Make Plans to Travel.” But those are just the secular ones. An Advent hymn heard at church today was “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry.”

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings.

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.

The reference is to John the Baptist, who didn’t actually foretell the birth of Jesus (as he was a contemporary) but foretold His ministry. The Gospel reading in many churches today would have been from Luke, chapter three, and also concerned John the Baptist. It struck me in one particular way this morning. A slightly abridged version:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar … the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

What happened to strike me this morning was this concrete example of why all Christians at least ought to be extremely dubious of anyone who claims they know how any biblical prophecy will actually be fulfilled. The evangelist Luke is indicating pretty clearly that the passage from Isaiah (chapter 40) is a foretelling of the ministry of John the Baptist. (In the Gospel of John, this same assertion is attributed to John the Baptist himself.) A Jewish exegesis of this passage would inevitably be different. But when one piece of Holy Scripture (of the New Testament) characterizes another piece of Holy Scripture (of the Old Testament) in this way, believing Christians pretty much have to take it as, well, the Gospel truth. What does it mean to accept that this prophecy was fulfilled in this very specific way?

“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low …” Is that what John the Baptist did? It is glorious language from Isaiah, poetic and powerful and rightly stirring. Yet, on the most mundane level, what John the Baptist did was to preach repentance from sin, which was something that prophets had done often before to the people of Israel, and in his way he inspired a kind of spiritual revival amongst those who listened to him. He wasn’t saying anything so dramatically new—I don’t think—but instead was reminding people of the urgency of repentance and of following God’s law. Although very few of his words have been recorded (only those few that are in the Gospels) he was apparently very inspiring to those who heard him. Even King Herod of the time, a decadent and corrupt man by all accounts, was intrigued and compelled by things that John the Baptist preached. However, John didn’t literally fill the valleys and level the mountains. The physical geography remained unchanged. What he did was inspire people and gather followers, and when Jesus began his public ministry he found a ready audience in people who had already been following John. John was a warm-up act, one might say. Perhaps in a certain sense he did the spadework, helping to enable Jesus to work at a higher level in his own preaching. Continue reading Advent Musings

The Cinch Review

Carol Singing and Tree Lighting on Park Avenue in New York City

In 1945, a tradition was begun in New York City by a group of families led by one Mrs. Stephen C. Clark, to illuminate fir trees up and down the median of tony Park Avenue to honor members of the military who lost their lives in World War II. It is continued to this day as a memorial to those who have lost their lives defending the nation, and is accompanied by the singing of Christmas carols, with the throngs gathering in front of the Brick Presbyterian Church at 91st St. and Park Avenue. It takes place on the evening of the first Sunday of December, which was today. Park Avenue in the vicinity is closed to vehicular traffic and the crowds stream in on foot from the south and the north.

Traditions like these are worth cherishing. There’s a very short video clip below captured during this evening’s proceedings. Continue reading Carol Singing and Tree Lighting on Park Avenue in New York City