Friday, December 21, 2012

The Music of Christmas: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I have always genuinely loved Christmas music; although, my tastes have varied over time. As a small child I was quite fond of Up On the Housetop. Nowadays I much more enjoy the likes of the Hallelujah Chorus.

Not that I didn't like sacred Christmas music as a child. Once when I was young I watched big fluffy snowflakes falling on our already snowy neighborhood out the front window of our home just days before Christmas. I went out into the carport where I could look at neighbors' Christmas lights through the falling snow without the glare of indoor lights reflecting off the window. I suddenly found myself so filled with the Christmas spirit that I burst out and sang O Holy Night at the top of my lungs.

Christmas music comes in sacred, secular, and crossover varieties.There are distinct subsets or themes revolving mainly around Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, charity, winter, and winter romance. Over my lifetime American culture has developed an increasingly tortured relationship with Christmas music. Americans seem to love Christmas music, but listen to it under a cloud of possibly offending some.

Still, some Christmas songs seem to endure quite well. But some of them honestly mystify me. When I was a kid we had a 33⅓ rpm vinyl LP that included a rendition of The Little Drummer Boy. I kind of like the music for this song. But maybe I'm too cerebral about it, because the lyrics make no sense to me.

As the father of five children I wonder what sane adult would allow some kid to pound on a drum to soothe a baby. Is Mary saying, "Yeah, the cattle and chickens aren't making enough noise. Why don't you see if you can permanently damage the baby's hearing by whacking your drum? That's sure to help the child sleep. Who the heck needs a silent night anyway?"

And while Jingle Bells has an incredibly catchy tune and rhythm, how in the world did it become a Christmas song? How many people can even sing more than the first verse of the song anyway? Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow! is a fun song, but why is it considered a Christmas song? Ditto with other romance based songs such as Sleigh Ride and Winter Wonderland. None of these songs even refer to Christmas in any form.

Unlike various religious scolds, I have no problem with most secular Christmas music, as long as it's not used in a worship service. While I think that devotion should play a central role in my Christmas celebration, I don't think that the Lord is offended with an appropriate amount of celebration that is not strictly religious. So I enjoy both religious and secular Christmas music.

I like both traditional and modern arrangements of various Christmas songs. Up to a point. Most broadcasts seem to tightly focus on a tiny subset of the ample repertoire of available songs. While there are multiple versions of these songs performed by various artists, it sometimes feels like overload.

It's easy for overload to happen when the Christmas season lasts 2-3 months. Christmas is magical when it is special. The longer the season is drawn out, the less special it becomes. Instead of the music lending to a magical feeling, it becomes annoying.

Speaking of annoying, there are a few Christmas songs that fit squarely into that category for me. I still recall the moment nearly 30 years ago when Jingle Bell Rock became permanently annoying to me. While I particularly can't stand the version where the male singer sounds like a goat when he sings, "Jingle around the clo-o-o-o-o-ock," I detest pretty much any rendition of the song. Feliz Navidad sits at the bottom of this bucket for me too.

On Monday night our family will gather for our traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Later on, after the sibling gift exchange, we will prepare to pray and read the Christmas story from the scriptures by singing a religious Christmas carol. I'm not sure what we'll sing. Whoever is the voice for our family prayer on the 23rd gets to pick the song on the 24th. But I am sure that I will enjoy singing the song.

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