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Christmas music demands that egos get left at the door.

With the secularisation of our culture now galloping away on all fronts, Christmas remains a haunting and haunted time of year. Many people who haven't really thought through what it might mean to completely set aside the traditional Christian view of life, catch themselves at this time of year slipping into old patterns of behaviour or reacting to mysterious seasonal reflexes that they thought they had rejected.

Even atheists and agnostics will try to cobble together some sort of equivalent ceremony that they hope can somehow convey the same sort of meaning and reassurance as the discarded religious holiday. It is not uncommon in such situations to see loved ones, or perhaps the family ideal, selected as Christ substitutes and invested with a kind of divinity which mere humans cannot possibly live up to for any length of time. With the inevitable shattering of these all-too-impossible projections, Christmas becomes for many people an unbearable time of insupportable expectations.


I've long been struck by the fancy that, consciously or not, Christians and agnostics, men and women, all start behaving like expectant mothers in the weeks of Advent, leading up to Christ's natal day. We make foraging trips into town to obtain gifts that we then wrap up and squirrel away in special hiding spots until the big day. We spruce up our nests, laying in provisions and comforts and special decorations to see us through the cold and busy days ahead. We succumb to strange appetites for exotic foods--mince pies, fruitcakes, plum pudding with hard sauce--which make no appeal to us at any other time of the year. Our emotions--usually held in check and revealed only in carefully controlled situations--make sudden and promiscuous appearances that break through and disrupt the surface calm of our lives. Two or three bars of the right piece of music are sometimes all it takes to bring us to the brink of tears. And when the big day doesn't come off as well as planned--or even if it does--a kind of post-partum depression may set in during the weeks and months after Christmas.

I find it fascinating--in a sad and tacky way--to root through the Christmas music section of used record stores. I don't think anything so exquisitely summarizes everything I loathe about celebrity culture quite like these discarded collections of inane and once-trendy Christmas ditties by one-hit wonders, sit-com stars, and non-musical hosts of daytime talk shows. These are some of the last people on the planet you'd want to salute from across a very large picnic field on Labour Day, let alone invite into your home and onto your sound system at the most special time of the year.

I used to think it was the mediocrity of talent that offended me in these seasonal turkeys until I saw The Three Tenors perform in some beastly Christmas gala several years ago that was aired as a special fund-raiser for the American PBS network; Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti--presumably these gents can sing. But there they were in a concert-hall the size of a small European country, reading from sheet music for a bombastically hollow rendition of Jingle Bells as if it were some aria from one of Verdi's more challenging scores.

Jingle Bells is a ditty which, in all its contrapuntal complexity, three-year-olds can memorise and will insist on singing non-stop unless you gently threaten to plaster their mouths shut with duct tape. And here were three of the most highly regarded voices on the planet grotesquely struggling to invest this slightest of musical trifles with so much meaning and decoration that it collapsed underneath all the effort. The proceedings weren't much more edifying when these blowhards tatted up more traditional, sacred carols with inappropriate vocal gymnastics.

So, no--it isn't an absence of talent which offends me in so much modern Christmas music. It's the presence of billowing egos, either in an ill-conceived song that seeks to imbue the secular with a quasi-sacred significance (as if snow or candles were in themselves holy artifacts), or in a grandstanding performance that screams, "Look what I can do with my voice here! Bet you can't do this. Aren't I fabulous?"

The best Christmas music is most beautifully realized when egos are left at the door. Even in a work of monumental genius like Handel's oratorio, Messiah, there are no grandstanding moments when any of the soloists are allowed to pull away the listener's concentration from the sacred story being told. Most of the beloved Christmas carols are as simple as folk songs and sound best when they're sung by choirs or unflashy solo voices in perfectly straightforward arrangements. One of the most sublime carols of them all, O Come, O Come, Immanuel, is one of the simplest. If you've ever seen the musical notation, there's nothing but unadorned black dots on the page as the carol is derived from early church plain chant.

I love getting out to a whole raft of professional choral concerts each Christmas. But the best version of Silent Night which I hear all year is the one I help to offer up as one small part of our decidedly unprofessional congregation at St. Peter's Basilica at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The place is always packed to the proverbial gunwales and Silent Night is our final song before the Mass proper gets underway. For some reason, the tempo for this carol always starts out geologically slow and just gets slower as we proceed. About one verse in, I start to lose myself in this gorgeous, oceanic sensation that I am nothing more than a piece of cork being sloshed from side to side of the cathedral on waves of sweetest sound. After that experience, I'm ready to kneel before the creche in utterly self-forgetting adoration.

Herman Goodden is a journalist who writes from London, Ontario.
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Title Annotation:COLUMNIST
Author:Goodden, Herman
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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