Do you ever have moments you wish you could just live in forever? I would classify the entire Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice, which I saw in both Philadelphia and Chicago, as such an experience. But if I had to pick just one song for my new life in an infinite loop of concerty awesomeness, it would have to be the sprawling experimental Sufjan Christmas original that is “Christmas Unicorn.”
The song opens with a delightful list of contradictions: “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!/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!” But then the song moves into a chorus that layers repeated cries of “I am the Christmas unicorn” over Joy Division lyrics: “Love will tear us apart, it’s alright, I love you.”
The song, which is the final song on Sufjan’s 59-track Silver & Gold collection released last month, embodies all the contradictions of Christmas as seen through Sufjan’s eyes. At both shows I saw he “admitted” to the crowd that he really hates Christmas, and his prolific output of Christmas music is his way of confronting “the enemy” head-on. I doubt that anyone who has dedicated an entire album to the holiday for each of the last 10 years, and has put on such an elaborate Christmas show, actually hates Christmas. But I do believe he loves it in a way that is very different from the love most people profess.
That’s why he calls himself the Christmas Unicorn.
In the incredibly extensive liner notes that accompany the CD box set, he writes, “Christmas is what you make of it, and its songs reflect mystery and magic as expertly as they clatter and clang with the most audacious and rambunctious intonations of irreverence.” He goes on: “You can have your angel food cake and eat it too, for the Christmas message ultimately mollifies our cosmic anxiety (who am I?) with a celestial-seasoning, body-massaging, hypoglycemic consolation of soothing conclusions: if God is for us, who can be against us? And still we rattle our New Year’s noisemakers with the fierce combustion of the living dead, irritably aggrandizing our exponential litany of Christmas wishes. God saved the world, but the world is not enough. We simply want more. These are the greedy anthems of the post-modern Christmas. These are the greedy anthems of humankind.”
So he performs his cheesy Christmas songs in an attitude of self-deprecation and even confession, acknowledging that too often they are true of us, that we have contributed in ways both and large and small to the redefinition of Christmas. We laugh at the kitsch because we know it but in that knowing there is also an identification–it is funny because it is not as foreign to us as it should be.
In his Chicago show, in particular, he did his part in pushing back against this tendency to fulfill our own Christmas prophesies by interspersing acapella hymns throughout the setlist (including a moving singalong to “Come Thou Fount” in which nearly every one in the Metro joined him for every word of every verse from memory).
This is the tension not just of the Christmas season but of the Christian life. The struggle to resist the commodification and overpersonalization of the gospel is constant. Something as beautiful and as complex and as simple as the embodiment of God’s love for us, in the form of his son Jesus Christ, can threaten to tear us apart because we are so messed up and we constantly make everything all about us.
So I would live in this song not just because it was so much fun–it was–but because it reminded me that I am not alone in living in the midst of tensions pulling me in every direction. And that the response to dealing with these contradictions is not to retreat, but to engage, even and especially with the things that frustrate and scare me most.