Less Merle, more Emmylou this Christmas

Emmylou Harris’ rendition of “The First Noel” provided one person with hopefulness during Advent more than 35 years ago. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

During the early ‘80s, when I moonlighted as a disc jockey at a country music station in South Dakota, my Advent was defined by one song.

This was a difficult time for 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 “If We Make It Through December” by Merle Haggard — definitely one of the most depressing Christmas songs ever recorded.

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 experience during Advent, it resonated with me.

I was fortunate to have a full-time job, albeit low paying, but unfortunate in having a boss whose disdain for Christmas made Ebenezer Scrooge appear as angelic as a child in a Christmas pageant. For several years, a couple of days before Christmas, he would tell me the budget was tight and he’d probably have to let me go early in the new year.

Thankfully, he did keep me, but his annual alarms sucked most of the hope out of Advent. However, a few years later, I played a song during my shift that improved my focus on that hope.

Dozens of artists have recorded “The First Noel,” but on this night I played an a cappella version by Emmylou Harris. 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 my boss’ annual prediction of unemployment, and replacing it with hopefulness.

It didn’t happen quickly. There were still “Merle moments,” like scrounging for the last few dollars needed to pay off the Kmart layaway (two terms that have disappeared from our lexicon) by Christmas, but there was enough spark in “The First Noel” to figuratively rekindle the Advent candles and allow us to focus on hope. It has helped us make it through more than 35 years of Decembers.

With all the COVID-related concerns and their impact, this Advent could well have triggered a return to “If We Make It Through December.” Instead, the focus has been on “The First Noel,” on the One we believe is the reason for the season — the Savior who is our true hope. We let Emmylou speak to our hearts and dispel the threat of Merle’s despairing words.

During the remainder of Advent, there is still time to hope, time to prayerfully realize that we will make it through December and that the light, sound and experience of that first noel will be as real for us as it was for those angels and shepherds more than 2,000 years ago.

May we find hope in the remaining weeks of Advent, and may we embrace and celebrate that hope throughout the Christmas season and into the new year.

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