It’s after Halloween. Openly, I nod seriously when people complain about all the Christmas things being set out in stores, stores that, because it is November, decide that it is not too early to start playing Christmas songs. (And God knows, I abhor the new trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving. I was always appalled by Black Friday, but opening and forcing your retail employees (usually the lowest on the totem pole, too) to work, is simply unconscionable. I try to make every effort not to go to either the 24/7/365 Walgreen’s or the grocery store, but I am not always successful in those. But I would never do Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving. And since Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday per se, I have no problem with being dogmatic about this. I actually would be less offended by stores being open on Christmas, mainly because it is a religious holiday, and therefore only really deserves to be held sacrosanct by Christians. Of course, I strongly suspect that there are few people who agree with me on this, given how the secular form of Christmas has seeped into our culture. That is not a complaint, mind you, or a shout to “keep Christ in Christmas!,” merely an observation.)
Secretly, I smile. I love Christmas songs. Whatever the state of my relationship with my Creator, Christianity in general, or whatever branch of organized religion I am currently attached to (there have been three different ones in my lifetime), Christmas music makes me feel joyous.
Note: I did not say happy. Joyous is a different quality, which may or may not contain happiness within it. It always contains elements of awe, and usually solemnity, however. It soothes me. Sometimes, secretly, I play Christmas music in July, if I need to.
It is music of miracles, of wonder, of infinite possibilities. There are notable exceptions: “The Coventry Carol” and some of the verses of “What Child Is This?” come immediately to mind. I love them anyway, as sad as they are, because pain and darkness is part of Christmas, too, even if it is usually ignored. To celebrate Christmas without recognizing the pain of a young woman who maintains her faith in spite of being in a socially precarious position, or the grief-stricken cries of the mothers lamenting the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, is to miss some of the depth and awful and awe-filled nature of the holiday. Not to mention that the baby whose birth is celebrated with such joy will himself grow up to be tortured and killed, rejected and left to die by his own people. Christmas is nothing if not a contradictory holiday. That darkness adds solemnity, and throws the light of the angels over the manger into greater relief.
It may because I was raised to associate this music with a certain state of mind, I still find it spiritually enriching. Why restrict it to one part of the year? My favorite Christmas song, “What Child Is This?” will, if I suspend disbelief, enter into my heart and fill it with awe. (And what is Christmas, and Easter, and Christianity in general, but a suspension of human disbelief? I am not convinced that the belief in a deity is inevitably part of the human psyche. I want to believe, the centurion said to Jesus, help my unbelief.) There are very few versions of this carol I dislike. Then there is the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah Maclachlan version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” with it soaring segue into “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” which makes me feel like I can fly. (I love this song also because when I was young and would sing of carols, I would always sing these two back to back in this manner. They just fit together.) This is the definitive version of these two songs, as far as I am concerned. There is the Bing Crosby/David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth,” which, if you overlook the awkward spoken set up, is really beautiful, a blending of generations in a timeless call for peace on earth. Isn’t that what we all want, after all?
Of course, the power of Christmas music may be part of why it is precious. It is something to wait for, something to cheer the long nights until the turning of the seasons. Except that I, unlike most people I know, embrace the darkness, and long for the winter days that end with the purple and pink of sunset streaking across the sky at 4:30. (I am almost the only person I know who cheers the ending of daylight savings time, because from there on the days will be shorter.)
Of course, this is the religious Christmas music. Secular holiday music is, for the most part, another story. I make an effort not to listen to the more obnoxious Christmas music, with a few exceptions. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Twisted Sister makes me grin (do you know that there are a number of heavy metal Christmas albums? I didn’t, until a few years ago, when I gave two of them as presents), and the Barenaked Ladies “Elf’s Lament,” makes me laugh. (For those of you not familiar with this gem, just think of it as the theme song for “Occupy North Pole.”) Then there is “Deck the Stills,” which is just… strange. The Bobs’ “Fifty Kilowatt Tree” brings back fond memories of going to tour the more extravagant light displays in town, put up by people willing to foot huge electricity bills, another sign of the season I look forward to with excitement. (Willow Glen always has those Godzilla reindeer. I can hardly wait.)
I am even starting to like Hanukkah music, which is certainly not part of the tradition in which I was raised. There’s not a whole lot of it that I have run into, though.
I hide my attachment to Christmas music. I listen with headphones so that I avoid the disapproving sighs and rolled eyes of my offspring, and the requests that I stop from my spouse. I understand their wanting to not hear Christmas music too early: to everything its season, says Ecclesiastes, and the season for Christmas music is about three weeks from now. There is not much Thanksgiving music that I know of, so it is a matter of struggling through the days with no seasonal music.
Except secretly. Shhhh….. Don’t say I told you.