Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
After about 50+ spins of Sufjan Stevens’s “Christmas Unicorn” in the past week, I believe I am sufficiently convinced that “I’m the Christmas unicorn.” But don’t worry, I also believe “you’re the Christmas unicorn . . . it’s all right—I love you.” Let me explain.
The mystery and utter silliness of our Christmas traditions is perhaps the most fitting way to celebrate the ultimate Christmas unicorn—Jesus Christ.In 2012, Stevens released his second installment of holiday revelry, Silver & Gold. This five-volume set is full of originals and Christmas favorites. The arrangements have the loose feel of friends in a basement strung with gaudy colored lights and strewn with various instruments, synths, and holiday leftovers. The irreverent yet sobering collection ends with the pensive 12-minute ballad “Christmas Unicorn.”
Over the strum of his mythical harp, Stevens introduces himself: “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.” This is no ordinary unicorn. But what unicorn is ordinary?
As winter’s breath softly billows, he continues: “Oh, I’m a Christian holiday, I’m a symbol of original sin / I’ve a pagan tree, and a magical wreath, and bow-tie on my chin.” Verse after verse, we begin to wonder whether we would do better to picture some kind of Frankenstein monster. He continues to enumerate his many shimmering attributes: “Oh, I’m a pagan heresy, I’m a tragic-al Catholic shrine . . . Oh, I’m a mystical apostasy, I’m a horse with a fantasy twist . . .”
What kind of Christmas unicorn is this? Hung with so many ornaments and tinsel, it’s completely unrecognizable. As the disarming couplets pour into our ears, doubts begin to swirl. We grow more and more uncomfortable peering at this lurid—yet somehow alluring—creature. It’s both pagan and holy, both be-wreathed and be-decked, both catholic and apostate. As we take in the bizarre sight, Stevens croons, “I’m a mythical mess, with a treasury chest, I’m a construct of your mind.”
The absurdity of it all begs this question: “What kind of sick mind would think up such a thing?” Without saying anything, Stevens lifts a hoof and winks: Yours, silly.
What is Christmas? Baby Jesus in a manger? Santa? Sugar cookies? Time with family? Red and white candy canes? Gifts? Trips to the mall? There are as many answers to the question as there are people in the world. And no two Christmas unicorns are alike, as Stevens continues: “We are legions wide, and we choose no sides, we are masters of mystique.” Christmas is an amalgamation of belief, tradition, and culture. Strangely, however, many of us want to insist that everyone must celebrate Christmas our way—the right way, of course.
“Christmas Unicorn” invites us in from the cold of a postmodern holiday tug-of-war. During the Christmas season, everyone wants to control the narrative. We will never discover our elusive vision of the perfect Christmas—the unicorn—until we realize that Christmas is really what we make it.
We allow others to bastardize the holiday, telling us through commercials, social media feeds, and Pinterest what the real Christmas ought to look and feel like. Stevens chides:
Oh, I’m hysterically American, I’ve a credit card on my wrist
And I have no home, or a field to roam, I will curse you with my kiss
Oh, I’m a criminal pathology with a history of medical care
I’m a frantic shopper, and a brave pill popper, and they say my kind are rare
The unicorn sheds a tear: Look what you’ve let others make me! I’m a medicated, over-shopping ball of anxiety and depression! How do we rediscover the whimsy and peace of this ancient holiday?
At Christmas time, we lose our minds. We cut down trees and put them in buckets in our living rooms. We put socks on our mantles and tell our kids that a fat man will somehow fit down the chimney to fill them with goodies. We drive all over God’s green earth eating family dinners at Aunt Susie’s and Grandbob’s and Sister Margaret’s all on the same day. We lay a baby statue in our front yards on a bale of hay next to an ass. Take a step back for a moment and have look in the mirror: “My gosh! I’m the Christmas unicorn!”
This is precisely Stevens’s point. But this is nothing to be ashamed of. The mystery and utter silliness of our Christmas traditions is perhaps the most fitting way to celebrate the ultimate Christmas unicorn—Jesus Christ. Jesus’s birth is the ultimate in hysterical whimsy. After years of waiting and looking and searching to the four corners of the earth for the mystical and elusive Messiah, he appears—naked but for a swaddling cloth, in a cattle feeding trough, surrounded by total strangers and blinged out in gold and perfume.
Christmas is meant to be a moment of unspeakable joy and mirthful disbelief. Can this Christmas unicorn, this most unlikely of Messiahs, really be the Son of God we’ve been searching for all these years? Jesus is everything we needed and nothing we expected—surely, even God chuckles as he wipes away a tear of joy on Christmas night.
Can there not be one time a year where we acknowledge an eschatological reality—there will be peace on earth? And it won’t come when everyone perfectly celebrates your version of a Protestant, red-and-white-wrapping-paper, Santa, Baby Jesus Christmas. It comes when we realize these battles have been eclipsed by something greater—the Prince of Peace. As the world echoes “Love . . . love will tear us apart,” the Christmas unicorn addresses us from its mythical environs: “It’s alright—I love you . . .”
Christmas is about solidarity. It’s about the Incarnation—God made flesh: “For you’re a Christmas Unicorn, I have seen you on the beat / You may dress in the human uniform, child / But I know you’re just like me.” Jesus, the son of God, became one of us. The song devolves into a multi-phonic swirl of sounds and shouts of the coming of the impossible. It is the triumphant celebration of the discovery of something that mysteriously eluded mankind for millennia—the Incarnate Word.
Christmas is an invitation into a different reality. We are searching for the Christmas unicorn in the toy section of Target or on Amazon or in the comments section of Facebook or in memes or in our saying of “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas,” but Christmas is an invitation to escape to the future. It is a place where once a year we are invited to play pretend, if you will. To imagine what it will be like to have Immanuel with us forever.
This is the elusive Christmas unicorn—the feeling of Christmas. We discover this feeling in our homes in different ways. We experience it in our churches through different rituals and traditions. There is no one right way to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ our Savior.
Raise the mirror this Christmas and laugh to yourself in all your absurdity: “I’m the Christmas unicorn . . . you’re the Christmas unicorn.” May you discover this December that the Lord Jesus has come to say, “It’s all right—I love you.”
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