Friday, December 20, 2013

A Cacaphonous Judeo-Christmas

Christmas Songs written by Jews in the 20th century don't mix with Ancient Christian Christmas Carols.

One cold winter's day in the prime of Advent there funneled into the Osterhout Library an unknown women's group. Once settled, they proceeded to sing a wide array of Christmas carols in a large community room. A library is maybe the least tactful place to sing carols, but a contentious person would make an exception for the ladies because one so rarely hears live voices singing carols these days.

If there was a problem with the carols, it was how the ladies alternated back and forth between spiritual old songs and the somewhat cynical popular Christmas songs from the first half of the 20th century. The "sound" of songs like "A Holly Jolly Christmas" differs vastly from songs like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." For this reason the ladies' performance was incongruous and kind of maddening to the aesthetically sensitive listener.

Christmas has changed over the past century. What made the holiday fun in pre-20th century days was the festive spirit. Song like Deck the Halls, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Here We Come A-Caroling, and Jingle Bells embody this spirit of merriment. But a far greater proportion of pre-20th century Christmas songs were religious hymns that conveyed spiritual sincerity. The most popular of these hymnal songs are:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Silent Night
Joy to the Word 
The First Noel
O Come All Ye Faithful
O Holy Night
Hark the Herald
We Three Kings
Away in a Manger
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

The "sound" of these songs differs greatly from the pop Christmas songs of the 20th century, many of which were written by Jews who appreciated Christmas but who couldn't and wouldn't grasp any meaning in the holiday that went deeper than gooey nostalgia found in Irving Berlin's "White Christmas". Jews of 20th century yore appreciated Christmas, just not in the same way pre-20th century Christians did.

The setting for much modern Christmas music is department stores. It would be awkward to hear religious hymns while trying on clothes or buying toys for junior. It may be outright sacrilegious to do so.

Television commercials also play a big role in defining what a modern Christmas is, and these would obviously favor the Santa theme because they are selling stuff that Santa will bring.

The radio is the main source of most people's knowledge of Christmas music, and it follows the commercial trend. Aside from frequently playing the top ten worst Christmas songs, they play songs like these top ten as reported by ASCAP.

1. Winter Wonderland
2. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
3. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
4. Sleigh Ride
5. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
7. White Christmas
8. Jingle Bell Rock
9. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer
10. Little Drummer Boy

Usually 1/3 to 1/2 of the top 25 songs in any given year are written and/or composed by Jews. The only two religious songs that creep in are the lamentable "Little Drummer Boy" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?". If any song epitomizes the aesthetic monstrosity of a Judeo-Christmas, it is the latter, which was written by couple consisting of a Jewish woman and Christian man. There is a theatrical coldness to it and a strained sincerity, as if it is something done merely for something doing it. It is a compromise that erases the best qualities from everyone.

But if most modern Christmas songs are aesthetically lamentable, then capitalism is proving that one doesn't need good aesthetics to survive. To make it in a capitalist society, you don't need to have good taste. You just need to find a way to use the market to make money. Rather than sincere flourishings of spirituality to coat a rough agricultural life or festive crescendos to end a hard year's work, we use less sincere pop jingles to accompany our less austere jobs.

There's no reason to consult spiritual beauty or festive energy when the goal is always another item in Santa's bag or to experience some picturesque snowfall. Because appetites are more frequently satisfied in a more productive capitalist society, the occasion for satisfying them means less, and holiday sincerity overall suffers.

Moreover, for most people, surviving in a capitalist involves many compromises. Putting up with incompetent superiors, doing demeaning jobs, and using one physical motion as in factory work or one mental exercise as in paperwork, repeatedly, till it's time to go home involves compromising one's will toward others. Compromise breeds cynicism, thus making more sincere music seem alien.

Seeking a deeper meaning in life vis a vis the hymnal songs does not get you anywhere in a capitalist economy. Neither does yuletide merriment which is symbolized with leftover pagan symbols such as evergreen trees, holly, ivy, mistletoe, etc.

The meaning of the 20th century songs the ladies sang is very different from the pre-20th century Christian/pagan carols they inter-spliced them with. This is not to say 20th century songs about Santa, Christmas nostalgia, and wintery weather are bad. Moreover, in no way is it artificial that we would have less sincere capitalist music in a less sincere capitalist culture. But for those looking for something more than what such a less sincere society can generate, they do not suffice. Mixing them together with religious songs and old pagan songs denudes them all of their essence. So it'd be nice if the ladies could finish the 20th century songs apart from the older carols.
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Epilogue

Besides the hymnal songs we listed above, there are some lesser known songs we'd like to share for those looking to explore the landscape of Christmas songs out there:

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
What Child is This? (set to the tune Greensleeves)
Good King Wenceslaus
Carol of the Bells (based on an old pagan song Shchedryk.)

From France:
Sing We Now of Christmas
Bring a Torch Jeannette Isabella
Patapan
Now is Born the Divine Christ Child
The March of the Kings (tune found in Bizet's opera "Carmen", and allegedly comes from crusader days.)

From England:
Ding Dong Merrily on High
Coventry Carol
The Boar's Head (about a pagan symbol)
The Holly and the Ivy

From Germany:
How Great Our Joy

From Appalachia, USA:
I Wonder as I Wander