Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas Unicorn
For most people, Christmas music means Mariah Carey, Chris Tomlin, or the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But Sufjan has a small army of devoted followers, and his Christmas contributions are no exception to this.
Several things set Sufjan’s approach to Christmas music apart. The first is the size of his projects. On November 14, Sufjan had released no fewer than 42 Christmas songs (collected in his album Songs for Christmas). On November 15, Sufjan added another 58 songs (the album is called Silver & Gold), taking his Christmas total to an even 100.
Another distinctive is the breadth of instrumentation and musical styles represented. As with most of his music, Sufjan goes nuts at Christmas time. You’ll hear songs created using only the recorder, songs shaped through digital instrumentation and manipulation, and songs traditionally crafted. You’ll hear oboes, banjos, electric and acoustic guitars, strings, flutes, synths, horns, bells, choirs, all forms of percussion, and just about any other instrument you’ve ever heard.
While many of these songs are very serious and sentimental, Sufjan’s Christmas albums are fun. He enjoys music, and he appears to enjoy Christmas, so his Christmas music comes together with an exploration of sound, themes, depth, and silliness that you won’t find elsewhere.
Aside from loving basically everything that Sufjan put out on Silver and Gold (not to mention everything he’s ever done), I was struck by the last song on the album: “Christmas Unicorn.” The song over 12 minutes long and carries an intriguing message about the nature of Christmas. As we would expect from Sufjan, the lyrics are simultaneously playful and deep, communicative and yet elusive (and allusive).
The song begins:
I’m a Christmas unicorn
In a uniform made of gold
With a billy goat beard
And a sorcerer’s shield
And mistletoe on my nose
We see from the first words that Sufjan is mixing categories that don’t appear to belong together. What has Christmas to do with unicorns? What do either of these have to do with billy goats and sorcerer’s shields? He continues:
Oh I’m a Christian holiday
I’m a symbol of original sin
I’ve a pagan tree and magical wreath
And a bowtie on my chin
Oh I’m a pagan heresy
I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy with a lazy eye
And a penchant for sublime
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy
I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite
People say I don’t exist
Category confusion. That seems to be what Sufjan is implying. Many of our Christian Christmas traditions do indeed have pagan roots. Sufjan sees these elements combined and highlights the oddity of a single holiday that manages to nod to each of these diverse traditions. He adds later:
Oh I’m hysterically American
I’ve a credit card on my wrist
And I have no home nor field to roam
I will curse you with my kiss
Oh I’m a criminal pathology
With a history of medical care
I’m frantic shopper and a brave pill popper
And they say my kind are rare
Now we have American consumerism, which results in the stress of frantic shopping, thrown into the mix. What are we to make of all of this? Sufjan’s unicorn explains:
For I make no full apology
For the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest
I’m a construct of your mind
Our Christmas season is a jumbled mess of categories. So many sectors of our modern society look at the same holiday and see very different things. Is this good or bad? The song ends with the affirming refrain: “It’s alright! I love you!”
Sufjan’s view of Christmas is explained in the album’s artwork (which includes a fine essay about the eschatological connotations of the advent season by the protestant pastor Vito Aiuto (of The Welcome Wagon) and an essay on the meaning of the Christmas tree written by Sufjan himself). Why does Sufjan enjoy Christmas even with its jumble of traditions and connotations? I will quote a significant chunk of his answer because I think it can help all of us think through the Christmas season:
In spite of my best judgment, in spite of public opinion, in spite of common decency, in spite of seasonal affective disorder, mental disease and Christmas fatigue, I’ve continued the musical tradition (ever onward forever amen), in pursuing all the inexplicable songs of the holidays, season after season (without rhyme or reason), relentlessly humming, strumming, finger-picking, ivory-tickling, finger-licking, soul-searching, fact-finding, corporate ladder-climbing, magic hatter rabbit hiding, rapping, slapping, super-sizing, miming, grinding, flexing, perplexing, plucking and strumming all the celestial strings of merriment with utmost Napoleonic fever. This tradition will not die.
What is it about Christmas music that continues to agitate my aging heartstrings? Is it the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen? Or the boundless Potential Energy inherent in this bastard holiday so fitfully exploited, subverted, confounded, expounded, adopted and adapted with no regard for decency. Christmas is what you make of it, and its songs reflect mystery and magic as expertly as they clatter and clang with the most audacious and rambunctious intonations of irreverence. And all its silly-putty, slippery-slope, slap-dash menagerie of subject matter (be it Baby Jesus or Babes in Toyland) readily yields itself to the impudent whims of its contemporary benefactors, myself included.
Though Jesus is who he is, and his birth signifies what it signifies, Sufjan is right to point out that the Christmas season is what we make of it. Some choose to ignore Jesus at Christmas, and that’s their prerogative. Many of us claim that Christmas is about Jesus, yet behave as though it’s about consumerism and Starbucks’ seasonal beverages. Christmas is what we make of it.
But at its best, Christmas reflects “mystery and magic.” It seems our society as a whole has a sense that this is true, and this shows up in stories about Santa Claus, elves, Jack Frost, and an endearing red-nosed reindeer. It also shows up in a beautiful (true) story of a Creator who mysteriously appeared in a manger, was worshipped by shepherds and kings, and eventually went on to save the world. That’s magic if I’ve ever seen it.