This column was the featured column on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on December 17, 2007.
About six weeks ago, I became the foster parent of a sixteen year old refugee from Burma. She’s a delightful kid. She smiles a lot and she’s helpful around the house. She likes my children and they like her.
But she doesn’t speak English, in fact, she doesn’t even speak Burmese. She speaks an obscure dialect of a language that almost no one outside of northwest Burma understands. Her hometown has no automobiles, no running water, no electricity, and very little contact with the outside world. I suspect that she can communicate fluently only with people from her town, and as far as I can tell, the only other person from her town in the United States lives in Michigan.
The other day my foster daughter and I were driving together, listening to the morning show on a local pop music station. In the studio, as guest performers, were members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, who sang a rousing version of “Jingle Bells.” Amazingly, my foster daughter started singing along with the chorus.
She doesn’t speak English, but somehow, she knows Jingle Bells. Go figure.
Now, frequently I complain about the secularization of Christmas, and I confess that I was disappointed when the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus didn’t choose to sing something more overtly spiritual—“Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming,” for example—but when my foster daughter, this young woman from the other side of the world, whose life has been torn apart by the cruelty and sorrow of war, started singing Jingle Bells along with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, it felt like a moment of grace.
If we believe the song of angels, that Christmas is about peace on earth and goodwill among people, and if we believe that peace and goodwill only can happen when folks come together across great barriers and divides, then the voice of an orphan from the mountains of Burma singing even the most secular of holiday songs with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus surely is an expression of what Christmas is all about.
Every year I hear lots of holiday music during the weeks that lead up to Christmas, and some of it is really good music. But this year none will be as beautiful or as powerful as the Jingle Bells duet I heard in my car that morning.