Christmas Music

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

The day after the Oscars, I came across a friend’s link about how women are under-represented in movies. The author of the video essay has a series of these short films related to that subject. Here’s one about holiday music:

My comment on the YouTube site was limited to 500 characters, so I kept it short (and very neutral, I hope). But here I can speak a little more freely, so I will.

The reason why people get so sick of “holiday” music is because it isn’t “Christmas” music. There are only so many songs about snowmen, reindeer, and Santa we can listen to before we want to run away screaming. And it’s because we have lost the joy and spirit of the season. It’s all about commercialism, materialism, and selfish motives, and less about family, love,
and peace. Even less emphasized is the real “reason for the season”…the birth of our Lord and Savior.

Oh no, you’re thinking. You had to go there, didn’t you? What are you, some kind of religious nut? But before you click away and never listen to another word, let me assure you that I am not a nut. I’m not going to try to convert anyone to my way of thinking, but if you’re so closed-minded that you won’t even attempt to read something you disagree with, that’s your problem, not mine.

Christianity is a big part of who I am. I was raised in a Christian home and hold many of its values dear to my heart. I am not especially religious in the sense that I follow the rules and regularly attend services. In fact I do not attend church every week, although sometimes I feel I should. I even do a few things that my mother would not approve of in her own life. She might think, “I didn’t raise my kids to behave that way,” though she has never said so out loud. But if asked directly, I would answer, “Yes, I am a Christian.” And as such I try to live my life in a way that reflects that.

Along with that belief and value system, then, there are a few principles of Christmas I hold to be true in my own life. The main one is that God sent His own son to Earth as an infant to experience human existence and save the world from its sin. The whole world has the ability to accept its salvation through Jesus, even if not everyone in the world chooses to accept it. That is the true message of Christmas, and my favorite songs of the season embrace that: “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Gesu Bambino,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” or anything from Handel’s “Messiah.” Many of these songs (or more properly, carols) are hundreds of years old, but they have endured for the beauty of their melodies and the power of their message. They may use a style of language that people do not speak anymore, but the essential meaning is simple and straightforward.

I never tire of listening to or singing these carols. Some of them can give me goosebumps or other signs of an intense spiritual experience. It’s still hard for me to sing the “Hallelujah” chorus without choking up in the middle of it. If I could pick the music that malls would play in November and December, it would be these carols and sacred songs. But we live in a society of political correctness and secularism where nothing religious (particularly Christian) can be mentioned without offending someone. Sing all you want about snow, Santa, and reindeer, but don’t dare mention angels, shepherds, wise men, or mangers.

It’s because of this watered-down, secularized version of Christmas (or to use the PC term, holiday season) that I grow tired so quickly of being anywhere with piped-in music. The selection of songs is so limited, and the message they convey is so shallow and meaningless. A few songs really will make me leave the premises as quickly as possible, without buying anything. I won’t mention the titles here, but let’s just say that while Paul McCartney and John Lennon were great songwriters, their Christmas music won’t ever find its way onto my iPod, nor will that of Elmo & Patsy or Gayla Peevey. Look them up if you must, but don’t hate me if you say, “Aah! I hate that song too! Why did you have to remind me?”

Granted, there are several 20th Century songs about Christmas I like: “The Christmas Song” has the most generic title (which is why we know it better as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), but the melody and jazz harmonies are lush and beautiful. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is a sweetly nostalgic love letter from a WWII soldier to his family back home. “Carol of the Bells” is based on a 19th Century Ukrainian melody, but it didn’t really become popular in the US until the 1950s or so.  None of these songs has any overt religious imagery, but I love them almost as much as my favorite carols.

However, many of my favorite modern Christmas songs have some sacred underpinnings. “Little Drummer Boy” is set the night of the first Christmas. “Grown-Up Christmas List” wishes for the return of Christian values in our society without naming them as such. “A Baby Changes Everything” draws a parallel between a teenage mother today and the teenage Mary.

I wonder if stores would play any of these songs if they were presented in an instrumental format. Then the lyrics would only be understood implicitly by those people who already know them. Surely a smooth jazz or R&B mix would not offend anyone’s sensibilities…well, those who can tolerate that style on a daily basis anyway. If companies like Muzak can take any pop song and turn it into easy-listening mush, why not do the same with a sacred carol? The religious overtones will be lost on most people, and this way we can expand our repertoire to the whole canon of Christmas music, not just what’s been written in the last 50 years.

It’s a compromise, and even if it doesn’t turn the trend of Christmas back in a sacred direction, at least I could stand in the store and hum along without the need for earplugs or my own private mix.

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