My favorite Christmas tradition: The Forgotten Carols

One family tradition that I insisted on keeping from my childhood was Michael McLean’s book The Forgotten Carols. I’m always curious to find out how well-known this book actually is (I mean, they are Forgotten Carols, right? How well known are they going to be?) Anyhow, without giving away too much of the story, a stuffy young nurse by the name of Constance (who fills the role of a 1950s-style Scrooge, prides herself on being “competent”) is given an assignment over the holidays of tending to an elderly gentleman at his home. Her heart is softened as this man named John shares the Christmas story with her through a series of stories that accompany ornaments on a Christmas tree with a carol to go with each one. Each carol tells a story of a different character surrounding the story of the Nativity.

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As a kid growing up, I would drag my feet whenever my parents announced that we were going to read the book again this year (we do it EVERY year!). But inevitably, I would feel myself drawn into the story. I would forget parts of it at times, and it always seemed to renew itself, especially when we paused reading to listen to the beautiful carols.

Of all the stories surrounding Christmas (besides the original, of course), this one to me captures the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of Christ. It teaches me to re-examine the Christmas story in a new light, to read the scriptures creatively and see the impact it had on others then and now. It gave me a model for a change of heart. And it gives a beautiful example of ministering, of someone who loves and has no ulterior motives.

I can’t pick a favorite song, but one that always has captured my heart is the song “Homeless.” As Constance is on her way home from a visit with John, she overhears a group of those without a home singing:

Homeless, homeless, like the Christ child was
Homeless, homeless, but there is hope because
He came down to earth to lead us,
He vowed he’d never leave us
Homeless, homeless For in his love there is a home.

Homeless, homeless, was his humble birth.
Homeless, homeless, and still he changed the earth.
Nothing kept his heart from giving
Though most of his life was living
Homeless, homeless
He showed its how we live, not where.

When his homeless days on earth were done,
He went back home to where we all came from.
And he went to prepare a mansion for us there.
He gave his whole life to lead us,
And I know he’ll never leave us
Homeless, homeless for in his love there is a home.

Why this one?  I feel drawn to this message.  Christ truly loves each and every one of us, regardless of our position or situation in life.  But in our meritocratic society, we often assign value to individuals based on their status and appearance.  This song captures a song of devotion from the humble in this world.  It is this song that constantly calls me to cast off the lens of the world for the eyes from heaven when I see my brother.

I served an LDS mission in Frankfurt, Germany. I remember as winter set on, that I had a hard time finding hope myself. I remember nearly crying as I prayed on the doorstep as we prepared to leave the house to start another day without a family to teach, cold ears and hands and cold glances and gruff “Keine Interesse”s.

But one night, we had an exchange with another companionship. I don’t remember why, but it was outside of our district. I went to Unna where the elders had a car. The elder turned on the stereo. Some of the familiar Forgotten Carols came on, and I felt such a feeling of peace and reassurance. I realized in that moment how much this story meant to me. As I studied the next morning in the scriptures, I turned to first to Luke 2, and then to other portions of the New Testament, seeking moments where Christ touched people’s lives, and pondering how their lives changed. This story is one of my first experiences where I felt what I truly knew how to live by faith. I knew what it looked like to be a disciple of Christ. I was glad to have this reminder at a hard time on my mission.

One moment I really like in this book is when John makes a new ornament for his tree just for Constance, a red cross. This exchange happens:

“So what’s the song that goes with it? she asked, almost sarcastically.
“Only you can write that one, Connie Lou.” he answered.
“But I don’t write songs.”
“Oh, yes you do,” Uncle John said, “We all do. It’s just harder for some of us to let them out, that’s all.”
“Let them out?”
“Out of our hearts,” he said. “We may not all be George Frideric Handel, but every meaningful experience we ever have has a song that accompanies it. And we write it in our hearts. Our favorite songs that other people write are the ones that come closest to sounding like the ones we have inside us. And you’re writing the one that goes with this ornament right now.”
“I’m writing a song… right now?” Constance already knew the man was crazy, but he was really proving it right now.
“Not consciously, of course. It’s all happening inside. And when you’re willing to let it be heard, you will discover that just like you, it’s beautiful.”

I know that my kids will inevitably be bored when I start reading The Forgotten Carols when they are older. But I hope that they build good memories with the songs that they can remember around Christmas time. Perhaps it will help them as they seek out the Christ for themselves.

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