Sister Winter: A cocktail inspired by Sufjan Stevens

When I graduated from college I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I'd spent my years as an English major immersed in language, and though I felt confident in the work I did at school, I was fearful of sharing writing that meant something more than a grade. I left school in search for a job, and over the following decade (holy crap) I explored social services, education, nonprofit work, and business ownership, all providing formative and fulfilling experiences. Through the process of delving more deeply into one man's work, however, I seem to have stumbled upon my voice again.

As I've been ruminating about the power of stories and their place in our lives, I've found myself grappling with what it means to be a storyteller. To imagine is natural, but to put the world inside your mind into words for others to read can feel clunky. The words can feel heavy, cumbersome, awkward to carry. You hear your inner voice struggling to sound good on the outside, trying to whisper some complete thought into existence. You question the thought's validity. You hope it makes sense to someone else.

But then you remember: Writing is prayer. It is vulnerable and earnest. It is the quest to be seen and understood, even if only by ourselves. Creation is communion, and it takes just about as many forms as there are people in this crazy world.

Christianity is a large part of Sufjan Stevens' storytelling mythology (something I'll be revisiting again). I have my own spiritual leanings, but I admit that none of them involve an organized religion. That said, I'm not going spend time here criticizing the modern evangelical Christian church. While I'm sometimes flippant around friends with regard to my time spent exploring religious history and modern culture, I do so with the understanding that I have been privileged enough poke around freely without being forced. Not everyone has been so lucky, and I don't take that lightly. I am, however, sincere in my respect and appreciation for the part religion plays in Sufjan's life and stories.

Between Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold, Stevens has released 100 Christmas songs. Wrap your brain around that. People are constantly talking about his abandoned 50 state project like it's some sort of letdown. This man has released 100 Christmas songs.  Delaware will be fine without his "Dela... Where?" album (although you're welcome to use that one, Sufjan). Let's all bask in the awe of the fact that his other musical accomplishments have been large enough to prevent him from being introduced as "Christmas Singer, Sufjan Stevens" wherever he goes.

Why Christmas music? Let's let the man himself take it away:

So what is it about Christmas music that continues to agitate our aging heartstrings? Is it the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen? Or the boundless Potential Energy inherent in this bastard holiday so fitfully exploited, adapted, and confounded with no regard for decency?

Maybe this: Christmas music does justice to a criminal world, marrying sacred and profane, bellowing obtuse prophecies of a Messiah in the very same blustery breath as a candy-coated TV-jingle advertising a string of lights and a slice of fruitcake. Gloria! {Silver & Gold liner notes}

Amen.

I'm really picky when it comes to Christmas music. I don't like most of it, and the songs I do like are usually the ultra-religious ones that make my fellow heathen friends grimace. Why? In my opinion, they're written more beautifully, both lyrically and musically. Most modern carols just don't make me feel stuff the way old school hymns do-- and I like my music to make me feel a lot of stuff (if I didn't, listening to Sufjan would be a bad idea).

The pieces I've chosen from Songs for Christmas have large emotional impact: Three original songs by Stevens, and three Christian standards he's reimagined. As I wander my way through my favorite bits of this collection, I'm going to share what I think reasonable people could get behind regardless of faith, and the elements that make these songs important parts of his body of work. These are stories, and I value them for their beauty regardless of religious sentiment.


Hymns

Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming

Digital track.

"Lo! How a Rose..." first appeared in print in German in the late 1500s and is a celebration of Isaiah 11:1. Even if you don't ascribe to the Christ-as-savior narrative, there something in this song you may be able to appreciate: Celebrating the coming of the light:

It came, a flower bright,

Amid the cold of winter,

When half-spent was the night.

This promise of the coming of the light sounds pretty good at the end of December when we celebrate the darkest day of the year and are waiting for the sun to return. This triumph of the light shows up over and over again in art, serving as a symbolic thread that ties us to hope when our lives feel dark. A more traditional rendition:

 

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Digital track.

The other day I listened to a friend speak about her frustration over not being able to find her way back to the things she once loved, namely creation and spiritual practice. Her partner had led her to doubt the pieces of her life she once held sacred, and over the years she let go. Now, moving on from this relationship, she's trying to reclaim the part of her that once felt like her birthright, looking for a strand to grasp that might connect her back to who she used to be. I can sense her trying to figure out how she ever lost her grip in the first place.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

prone to leave the God I love;

here's my heart, O take and seal it,

seal it for thy courts above.

That's what this song brings up for me. Call it God, inspiration, the universe, the spirit, your intuition, whatever: It's so human to wander away, to doubt. The desire to allow Something Else to seal the fundamental core of who you are and keep it safe in love is a powerful one. How lovely it would be to accept that those parts of you continue to exist, and that by praising their safety you'll be led to them once again. Perhaps acknowledging that you've wandered is the only way to get where you belong?

Holy, Holy, Holy

Digital track.

I freaking love Sufjan's rendition of this song. I like it so much that, like the other songs I've shared here, I sometimes listen to it during non-Christmas times. However, I've never heard another interpretation of this song that I liked. Most renditions are too big, too over-the-top, too "Holy, holy, HOLAAYYYYY!" for my taste. Stevens' approach is muted and sincere in a way others aren't.

I can't spin this song: It is unabashedly I do it for you, Lord! and I'm comfortable with that. I'm going to let the music speak for itself on this one.


Originals

That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!

Digital track.

My parents are originally from Michigan. The last time I visited was back in the 90s when we returned for a family reunion. I remember going to a mini golf course with my sisters, aunt, uncle and cousin, and having the best time (yes, even Broody Teenage Sara). When we told our parents how fun it was, my dad insisted we go again. What had been a happy experience with my aunt and uncle was ruined by his competition with them, and somehow he managed to punish us for having a good time.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: That was the worst game of mini golf ever!

The "our father yells/throwing the gifts in the wood stove" piece in this song feels close to the truth of my memories of my dad, and I suppose that's why this song gets me where I live. On a more technical note, "That was the Worst Christmas Ever!" feels as much Illinois-era b-side as Christmas song for me, due to the similarly pared-down acoustic feel and melancholy autobiographical subject matter. And yet it's still delightful when served with sparkly garland:

Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved it!)

Digital track.

This is an angry break-up song with sleigh bells. Deal with it.

I'm always impressed by Sufjan's juxtaposition of airy, light-hearted music with sad lyrics. If you need to honor the vengeful underbelly of your holiday cheer, I recommend having this song handy. And because I couldn't find a live performance of this song on YouTube, I'm sharing this House fan video set to it... Because why not?

(You're welcome/I'm sorry.)

Sister Winter

Digital track.

After my parents split and I cut ties with my father, I had a hard time getting into the Christmas cheer. The traditions we'd known as a family had to change, and I had a slough of memories to reconcile while grieving their loss. Songs for Christmas came out the year my family was trying to rebuild itself after the shock of our experience, and "Sister Winter" became something of a Christmas anthem for me. It's appropriately morose for dealing with life-altering change, while still being a joyful reminder to come up for air and celebrate what is, rather than mourning what was (or never could be).

Haunting piano, pleading vocals, tight lyrics, and an epic crescendo make this a solid song in its own right, and one of my favorite Sufjan Stevens songs on any album. In fact, it's not really a Christmas song at all until about 3 minutes in when the music builds, the bells start a-ringin', and the vocals boom out to wish you a happy Christmas. It feels a little more All Delighted People than Illinois to me, but that could be my own biases coming into play (intrigue!).


The Recipe

Sister Winter: A cocktail inspired by the music of Sufjan Stevens. By Sara Galactica. | saragalactica.com
Sister Winter: A cocktail inspired by the music of Sufjan Stevens. By Sara Galactica. | saragalactica.com

Sister Winter: A cocktail inspired by the music of Sufjan Stevens

Cocktail by Sara Galactica.

You'll Need:

  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz coffee liqueur
  • 1/2 oz apricot liqueur
  • 6 dashes Angostura bitters

What to do:

Add all ingredients to a cocktail pitcher or shaker, half-filled with ice. Stir well, approximately 45-60 seconds.

Strain into a rocks glass:

  • Empty if you like your darkness served neat,
  • Or on the rocks if your heart is cold as ice.

If serving up: A solitary clove to garnish. Rocks: Leave it be; the cold is enough.

Here's to finding the light!

Next Week

I'll share the first of my two favorite Sufjan Stevens albums, All Delighted People EP.