Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10 by Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty, 2012.)

Sufjan Stevens is an American singer-songwriter born in Detroit, Michigan and based in Brooklyn, New York. Stevens has released many albums of varying styles but is perhaps best known for Come On Feel the Illinoise, a concept album based on the state of Illinois. Stevens collaborates often with a variety of musicians and his work has received much critical acclaim.

A Magical Time of Year, A Complicated Time of Year

Isn’t December a magical time of year? The air seems to fill with the spirit of the season. People buzz around grabbing gifts, attending holiday parties, imbibing in spirits, and viewing Christmas lights. There is a high collective espirit de corps. People become rejuvenated in these winter months through family—hopefully—and through sacred rites. Hey! It’s nice to even receive a gift or two.

Underneath it all, however, emerges a tension. During Advent, Christians worship and anticipate the coming of Christ. They celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas day, in-taking the annual reminder of the incarnation. Yet at the same time, Christians dive deeply into “Commercemas” hoping to do their fair share of economy boosting. Christians celebrate the birthday of their Lord and Savior by giving gifts to people other than Christ.

Christmas music perhaps represents the worst perpetrator on the commercial side. All those songs you hear on the radio have made their creators millions of dollars. Every year, a new crop of artists releases the Christmas album, hoping, praying, even petitioning their God to administer financial favor through a long-running Christmas hit.

Sufjan Stevens recognizes this tension in his latest box set of Christmas tunes, Silver & Gold.

For those unaware, Sufjan Stevens embarks on an annual tradition this time of year. He culls his musical friends and records an album of seasonal songs for his friends and family. Every five years, these holiday tunes are collected and transformed into a box set. I absolutely love this record and there are three main reasons.

The Problem of Consumerism

First off, Sufjan understands the rampant consumerism which surrounds Christmas music. He, like many artists before him, stands to make copious amounts of money from his work. Yet, profit stands in tension with the charitable side of Christmas, both in the giving nature of Christ and in the benevolent acts of the historical Saint Nicholas.

For this reason, Sufjan has released his original work under Public Domain. He writes:

“In response to this inequitable habit, and in the spirit of generosity inherent in the holidays, I’ve decided to release all of my original songs (those of sole-authorship contained in this box set) as Public Domain—not as an impetuous gesture, nor one of self-righteousness (I don’t pretend to think anything I’ve written here measures up to the intonations of the Brill Building or Johnny Marks)—but, rather, as a simple, unself-conscious display of obeisance illustrating where I would like to see the music industry proceed in the transcendental future: toward a more democratic, collaborative, and cooperative ethos… These songs are your songs. You are free to perform them, record them, exploit them, enjoy them (or ignore them) however you desire.”

The Problem of One-Sided Advent

Second, Sufjan pays homage to the two sides of Advent. People in the Christian tradition often focus exclusively on the celebratory side of Jesus’ birth but ignore the apocalyptic side of Advent. During Advent, Christians not only wait for the birth of Christ celebrated on Christmas, but they also await the second coming of Christ, the ruling Christ who comes not as a humble servant but as a conqueror. Christians rightly celebrate life during Christmas, but they must never forget death as well.

Reverend Thomas Vito Aiuto (for whom Vito’s Ordination Song is dedicated) ponders the significance of these facts in a brief exposition on advent, found in the liner notes of this box set.

In the end, he concludes,

“Advent is ultimately about death.
The end is near.
You are going to die.
Happy Holidays.”

Sonically, Sufjan reflects these apocalyptic themes in “Justice Delivers Its Death”. He croons introspectively on the idea of riches stored here on earth and ponders whether or not accumulating silver and gold is a waste of time.

The Problem of the Christmas Tree

Lastly, Sufjan posits the Christmas tree as the ultimate symbol of tension in Christmas. Part pagan, part Christian. A symbol of the environmental degradation of commerce and yet a unifying emblem of community.  Given its history, Sufjan believes we have made the Christmas tree our bitch. And yet, the tree means everything during the Christmas season!

He ponders,

“Let me assure you: I still believe in the integrity of the Christmas tree, in spite of free-enterprise (and all its evil machinations), in spite of my psychobabble (and all its worst intentions). I am a man of convictions. And I believe the tree speaks of a simpler, quieter, self-evident truth far more mysterious than that of Christian tradition, Capitalism, Paganism, or Coca-cola: that of unconditional love.”

The Solution: Unicorns!

Despite the mishmash or traditions and the seemingly irreconcilable differences between commerce and charity, Christmas works. It offers an irreplaceable joy, love, and warmth which makes each and every one of us better, internally and externally.

For this reason during the last song on the box set, Sufjan suggests that we are all Christmas unicorns. Physically, emotionally, mathematically, we shouldn’t exist. Yet every year, we erect the tree, wrap our presents, attend mass, have one too many hot buttered rums, and hold our loved ones that much closer. Christmas truly is magical.

Oh, and Silver & Gold is an awesome record.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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