Tuesday, December 7, 2004

JH - Sing We Joyously Noel

Two of the radio stations in the city are now playing Christmas music all day every day. Great, except that most of it is by the singers whom they play the rest of the year. I know I wait all year to hear some screaming diva belt out All I Want for Christmas Is You or a second-rate version of the The Christmas Song. I think I'm getting old. Most of my favorite singers are dead. But they live on in classics that can't be beat. Bing Crosby - White Christmas, Frank Sinatra - The Christmas Waltz, Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song (or Mel Torme; after all, he wrote it), Perry Como - There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays. At least Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams are still around.

I agree generally with James Lileks' comments in his Back Fence column on Christmas songs that appeared in last Sunday's Star Tribune. Click here for that column. However, we part company with The Little Drummer Boy. I think he's intentially, for the sake of humor, missing the point.

I'm not one to wear my heart on my sleeve. I rarely cry except when my bare toe comes in contact with something more immovable than itself, say a wall or bedpost. But the other day on the way to work I was listening to the song on the radio and found tears coming to my eyes when I realized that here was the embodiment of Christian humility and the command to pray constantly by offering ourselves and everything we do to God. The little drummer boy has nothing but the talent that God gave him to offer back to Him. And he does so humbly, wondering if it is "fit to give a King." But then "Mary nodded" and the boy began to play. He was rewarded when the baby smiled at him.

How we all would like the baby to smile at us, saying, "Well done good and faithful servant." This can happen to us when we offer our own talents, however great or small they may be, in the service of the Lord. And in this season of Advent we can contemplate how to play our little drums all year long.

There used to be another station that played Christmas music, too, billing itself as "Christmas in the City." Now, they play a tune or two in between their regular fare. Each year the airtime on this station for seasonal songs has shrunk, like the Grinch's heart moving the wrong way. First it was only slightly noticeable. Then, they only played "holiday" or "winter" songs, leaving out the overtly religious carols. Except for instrumental versions or Enya singing Silent Night in Gaelic, so no one would be offended by the lyrics.

It's a religious holiday, no matter how much the secular world would like to pretend otherwise. I'm so tired of having to tiptoe around someone else's sensibilities. What about mine? If I were Jewish I could celebrate Hanukkah. If I were black, I could celebrate Kwanza. If I were Moslem I could celebrate Eid ul-Fitr. But because I'm Christian I can't celebrate Christmas. At least not in public. I have to say Happy Holidays or Season's Greetings. It was such a pleasure to listen to the live broadcast of the Christmas concert from St. Olaf College on public radio last weekend. It didn't pretend to be anything other than what it was - a glorious, joyous celebration of the impening birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. If this station wants to broadcast programs that celebrate the other holidays, fine. Please do. At least they had the courage to air something for Christians. At least I got mine.

I enjoy all the secular aspects of the season, but I take Christmas seriously and it must include the "reason for the season." Each year at Christmas Eve dinner we read Luke 2:1-20. We go to Midnight Mass (11 central). As a singer, I can't count the season complete unless I hear Handel's Messiah.

I think that others take it seriously too. Many years ago I sang with a chorus that was part of the Portland Symphony Orchestra's Magic of Christmas concerts. Over the years the concert schedule grew to include 11 concerts over two weekends. Most of the shows were sold out as people took time out of their busy schedules to doll up in their finery and attend a joyful, fun - magic - presentation of Christmas music with orchestra, chorus, soloists, bell ringers and boy choirs. Audiences eagerly awaited the show every year - almost as much as the chorus did. We were a dedicated group of volunteers who rehearsed for weeks and couldn't wait to sing ourselves hoarse. To this day you can wake me out of a sound sleep and I can sing the soprano part of the Halelluah Chorus from memory. We had fun, but we took it seriously. Partly it was because we had professional attitudes but for many of us, it was a way to play our little drum before the King. When a new conductor took over the reins of the orchestra one year, he decided to make some changes. He came from an orchestra that played around with Christmas, didn't take it quite so to heart. He included a song, the name of which escapes me now because I'm sure I've tried to ban it from my memory, that made fun of Christmas. Honestly, we tried to rehearse it. Some of us cried. Some of us were angry. All of us threatened to quit. The song was quickly replaced and the concerts went on, pleasing the audiences and the participants. To his credit, the conductor caught on rapidly and never tried to do that again. To make up for his previous faux pas, the next year he programmed Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus and conducted it in a beautifully deliberate manner which we had never experienced before. It was exquisite. And so is any act that pays homage to God in such a humble, prayerful way.

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