‘Tis the time of the year for Christmas music, and for my money, Christmas music doesn’t get much better than Sufjan Stevens’ extensive holiday-themed catalog. The man has released two volumes of Christmas music that run the gamut from reverent interpretations of Yuletide traditionals (some of them quite obscure) to original tunes both silly and sublime.
Earlier this month, my church put on its children’s Christmas program, which included a performance of Stevens’ version of “The Friendly Beasts,” arguably my favorite Christmas song of all time. (As I wrote in my review of Songs for Christmas, “one can almost see the little tykes in their homemade animal outfits, singing offkey and forgetting lines as parents proudly videotape the spectacle,” and that’s pretty much what happened at our church — and it was perfect.)
But lately, I’ve been thinking about one of Sufjan’s silly-yet-sublime originals: “Christmas Unicorn,” the final track from 2012’s Silver & Gold, due in no small part to the trippy video that Asthmatic Kitty recently released. The song finds Sufjan exploring the many conflicting aspects of Christmas — Christian holiday, pagan heresy, celebration of crass materialism (to name a few) — with his usual wordplay, breathy vocals, and quirky instrumentation.
The song culminates in a giant singalong of “I’m the Christmas unicorn/You’re the Christmas unicorn” that eventually merges with the timeless refrain from Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” As one might imagine, it makes for a pretty entertaining performance.
But I don’t think Sufjan is being silly, clever, and/or snarky simply for the sake of being so. Lord knows there’s plenty to snipe on regarding the Christmas season, from the crowded shopping malls to the awkward family interactions. “Christmas Unicorn” tells us to not brush these contradictions and conflicts under the rug, but rather, to acknowledge them, find the sublime in them if possible, and yes, laugh at them, and our own hubris and falsehoods.
This is particularly important for Christians, I think, because we face two temptations during Christmastime. On the one hand, we may want to ignore the darker, more troubling aspects of the holiday season, be it stress, family strife, guilt, or something else entirely. After all, we ought to be celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior. On the other hand, we may stand in judgment over those who seek to “profane” this most sacred of seasons, hence the “War on Christmas” brouhaha.
Then along comes Sufjan — dressed as a unicorn in balloons, feathers, and tinsel natch — to encourage us to seek after a middle way. To acknowledge both the darkness and profanity, but to still seek after the sublime and ephemeral.
This approach comes into stark relief during the song’s glorious contrapuntal climax: Sufjan and his fellow merrymakers sing out “I’m a Christmas unicorn” with growing celebration and abandon while met with a grace-filled rejoinder (“It’s alright, I love you!”), and everyone disappears into a dénouement of shimmering synthesizers that gives “Christmas Unicorn” the patina of a precious childhood memory as it slowly fades out.
Now, perhaps I’m reading into things a bit much. Maybe Sufjan really just wanted an excuse to work a Joy Division cover into a Christmas song (which, you must admit, is a pretty brilliant idea). But there’s always a method to Sufjan’s madness, something a little more going on just below the silly surface. And so it is with “Christmas Unicorn.”
I doubt the song will be entered into the holiday canon anytime soon, but it may yet serve a noble purpose this holiday season. It may help us grow a little more humble, and enjoy a bit more fully both the silly and the sublime during this blessed season.