Light Rafts for Flagging Spirits | Christmas 2020 Edition

An early Christmas present of music, film, images, and stories that hopefully will lighten your load and lift your spirits. May your holiday be merry and bright.

1. Moya Brennan & Irish Women in Harmony sing “Hallelujah” | Dublin

Moya Brennan of Clannad joined the choral musical group Irish Women in Harmony to perform Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for the annual Christmas busk benefitting the Simon Community, which supports unhoused and vulnerable people throughout Ireland.

Usually, the busk happens on Christmas Eve outside the Gaiety Theater on South King’s Street in Dublin’s (normally) busy shopping district. But because of COVID, this year organizers, including the lovely soul that is Glen Hansard, had to pivot, cleverly. Earlier this week, a live special aired on RTE’s Late, Late Show, including performances by Hansard, Shane McGowan of the Pogues (bless him), and my beloveds, The Edge and Bono, who sang “Walk On” and with a little help from Hansard and other musicians in studio, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

As part of The Busk, Brennan and Irish Women in Harmony recorded a live performance of “Hallelujah” from inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. If this doesn’t give you Jesus shivers or bring a tear to your eye, you might want to make sure your joy meter has fresh batteries. A version of the performance posted on Irish Women in Harmony’s Instagram page also included a powerful introduction that said:

2020 was the year of COVID, of that we can be sure. But something else was brewing, something strong began to stir—it was the voice of women rising beautifully and strong. And now the time has come to stand in awe of all mná.”

Mná is the Irish word for “women,” and that slogan, “Stand in awe of all mná,” has become the slogan for a powerful new movement in Ireland for women’s rights.

2. The Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar | A Galaxy Far Away

The Atlantic magazine has been posting a photo each day in Advent from the Hubble Space Telescope and they are awesome, in the literal sense of that word. Wowza.

The Hubble space photos are beautiful, perspective-giving, and, at least to my eye, hopeful. Click through to see what the Christmas post will be and to see all 24 of the posts so far. If possible, try to do it on a larger screen and in the “full screen” mode because they detail and the colors are mesmerizing. Well done, science!

3. Extraordinary “O Holy Night” performed by Katie Possley | Chicago

Admittedly, I am biased. Katie is our daughter-in-law, a ridiculously talented, classically trained soprano who doesn’t sing as often as she used to, now that days are full with work and raising our ebullient granddaughters, young Cece and Aislinn.

Earlier this week, Katie’s mother texted her from Colorado to say she’d seen someone perform “O Holy Night” on The Voice, and might Katie sing it for her and send a recording. When she lived in Denver, it was a tradition for Katie to sing the 19th-century French carol at church on Christmas Eve. This year, she’s not able to be with her parents to celebrate Christmas because of COVID and everything else.

First, Katie called her friend Bethany, a classical cellist (now a lawyer and mom to one of CeCe’s best friends), then she phoned the choir director at their parish, who secured permission from the pastor to use the sanctuary for a few minutes Christmas Eve morning. Katie warmed up her voice for a few minutes, pulled on a Christmas sweater, called another friend to tag along to take the video, and headed to church, where she recorded a rendition of '“O Holy Night” that gave me the good kind of goosebumps—a gift to her parents and to the rest of us.

Thank you, dear Katie. Merry Christmas. And may next year bring us together again. Please hug Tim and the girls for us. We love and miss you all.

4. Take a slow-TV sleigh ride through the Arctic | Karasjok, Norway

Filmed in Karasjok, Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, The Sleigh Ride is a nearly two-hour “slow TV” film that is blissfully hypnotic in its simplicity.

First aired as a Christmas special on BBC Four in 2015, The Sleigh Ride, is now available to viewers in the United States via Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services.

Following the path of an ancient postal route, the ride captures the traditional world of the Sami people who are indigenous to northern Scandinavia and for whom reindeer herding remains a way of life….

This journey takes us through breathtaking scenery not normally glimpsed by anyone other than the Sami. Deliberately unhurried, the rhythmic pace of the reindeer guides us along an epic two-hour trip that takes us over undulating snowy hills, through birch forests, across a frozen lake and past traditional Sami settlements….With no commentary, music or presenter - just the crunching of snow and the soft tinkle of a reindeer bell - this hypnotic sleigh ride is an enchanting experience to put everyone in the Christmas spirit.

The Sleigh Ride is right up there with my other favourite atmospheric, unhurried Christmas film from the magnificent Nick Offerman and Lagavulin Whiskey:

And if an hour of watching Nick sip a dram while a fire crackles in the background isn’t enough for you, there’s a TEN-HOUR VERSION you can find HERE.

5. David Bowie’s Son Finds His Iconic Scarf from The Snowman

Duncan Jones, son of the late Starman himself, David Bowie, lost track of the scarf his father wore in the 1984 introduction to the British holiday classic short film, The Snowman, when he moved house a while back. When Jones went looking for some sock monkeys (like you do) earlier this week, he rediscovered the irreplaceable family Christmas heirloom—and a lovely story…

Brian Harding, who had been an producer on the 1982 short animated film, responded to Jones’ tweet, and a thread unfolded.

Maybe you were aware of Bowie’s involvement with what has become a Christmas classic in the UK. I was not. It’s a charming tale. According to a 2016 report by Jude Rodgers in The Guardian:

“A man with ice-blond hair walks into an unlit, gloomy attic, snow falling outside, dusty memories in his mind. He kneels down by a rocking-horse and tells us of his childhood, of holidays by the seaside, of winters returning home, of being around the fire, and of making snowmen. “One year, I made a really big snowman,” says Bowie, pulling a blue scarf out of a drawer; it is dotted with snowmen, green-hatted and coal-eyed. “He got me this scarf. You see,” he says tenderly, “he was a real snowman.”

“For millions of us, Christmas TV wouldn’t be the same without the animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman, made in 1982. For those of us who remember Bowie’s introduction, where he frames himself as the boy who made and loved and lost a special friend, this dreamlike detail of the season takes on new poignancy now.”

6. John Krasinski resurrects Some Good News in holiday special | 🌎

When John Krasinski, everybody’s lovable, goofy older brother, started broadcasting from his house in the early days of COVID, I watched all of the dozen or so episodes of the Some Good News network, twice. Sometimes three times. And I cried happy tears, kinda like the ones I leaked earlier this week when he surprised us with a brand new episode: The Holiday Special with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. Grab some Kleenex before you press play.

7. Giant xylophone in the woods plays Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” | Japan

Ignore the fact that it’s an ad for a smartphone. It’s still glorious.

8. Christmas Eve Lessons & Carols from St. John the Divine | NYC

I was blessed to watch “The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Nine Lessons and Carols” live on Thursday afternoon via the cathedral’s Facebook page. If you’re looking for something sacred, soaring, and gentle, this Christmas, the two-hour service might do the trick. It’s gorgeous, even with all the COVID safety adjustments. Click HERE to watch the replay.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a special space for me. When I’m in New York City, a place that has felt like a second home for most of my life, I try to make the pilgrimage north for Evensong or whatever else the wonderfully artistic Episcopal parish has going. When I began my spiritual practice of “looking for the light” seven Advents ago, visiting the cathedral was one of the first places I went to look. And I found the most remarkable light. Here are a few pictures from a December 2016 visit:

Eleven days ago, as some church members were wrapping up a Dec. 13 Christmas concert on the steps of the grand cathedral at the corner of Amsterdam and W. 110th Street in Morningside Heights, a gunman appeared with two pistols and started firing into the air. As the audience began to flee and two police officers quickly responded, the apparently suicidal man, Luis Vasquez, begged to be killed, shouting “Shoot me! Shoot me!” Police urged him to put down his weapons but he refused and, tragically, was shot once in the head and died in the hospital next to the church. A senseless death in a year that has claimed the lives of so many thousands already to a deadly and global virus.

Vasquez’s death was a cruel, twisted trauma to have unfold on the steps of a church just days before Christmas in this most awful of years. And yet … Advent is the season of expectant waiting and looking for the light even, and especially, in the places where it seems entirely absent.

The cathedral made the bulletin for the Songs and Carols service available online and I’d encourage you to read the homily in it, written by The Right Rev. Clifton Daniel III 10th Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. He says in part,

“Last Sunday’s event does not exist in isolation. It is linked to the larger misery and tragedy of humanity and creation. It is also linked to the Christmas call and the trust God has placed in us as ambassadors of the inbreaking new creation God announced at Jesus’ birth.

“The call Christmas issues is a call to our Cathedral and all Christians to care in more and concrete ways. The call is to renew our commitment as Christians to work for an eradication of gun violence, the brutality of prison life, a stronger safety net for troubled youth and those suffering from mental illness. The trust God places in us means we must be there for others: in their sorrows, their difficulties, their hopes and fears….”

May we all experience and model peace and light this Christmas and in all the days to come. #LuxInTenebrisLucet

9. 28-trombones-only rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody"

Tired of Christmas music? This magnificence is your aural palate cleanser.

10. Allow this image of Pittsburgh in the snow to transport you…

Finally, I’ve been staring at this photograph of snow-covered Pittsburgh taken by photographer Dave DiCello for a week. Who knew the Steel City could look like such a winter wonderland?

It’s so picturesque it almost looks like it could be the world’s largest collection of Department 56 illuminated miniature Christmas villages or a scene from a Thomas Kinkade holidayscape (“Paint the light, Thomas. Paint the light!”)

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