Friday, December 25, 2009

The aural footprint of Christ's birth

Christmas is the time of year when you can get anyone to sing. The average layman in my church is willing to travel far and wide to sing carols to the homebound, and the crowd at a local public school choir concert willingly joins in an impromptu sing-a-long.

Christmas carols, themselves, compared to the ever-changing popular music scene, are the champions of enduring folk song. Christmas carols that emerged centuries ago are still being sung today, in contrast with other traditional songs that have been lost or if not lost, missing from our everyday lives.

Not only do we sing Christmas songs, we sing them well, because they have stood the test of time. Now the average layman can sing a melismatic passage in Angels We Have Heard on High, because the song is burned onto his aural memory. I encourage my older violin students who have not had the benefit of Suzuki ear training to play by ear. I had a recent breakthrough with my hesitant students when guiding them to play Christmas songs. We know those songs cold.

Why, when sadly, most of our folk songs are being sung by the elite musicologists, can we sing 15th century carols without even thinking? Why, when Baptist churches have cut out old European hymnody with its complex harmonies, do we still know God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen? Why, when most other churches have cut out hymns all together, do we know 20 some odd strophic Christmas hymns? Why do we want to sing this stuff?

The event where God came to earth and became one of us was an event that shook us. We are still feeling the cultural aftershocks of this event 2000 years later. Not only did Christ's birth affect politics, how we write our calendar, and a myriad of other things; it affected art and music.

I will admit, there has been a rape of this tradition that I am speaking so confidently about. B-101, our soft rock station, plays continuous Christmas music and the abysmal void left by only playing secular songs is felt, for me in a spiritual sense but by everyone in an artistic sense. But why do we want continuous Christmas music? And why, since we are on the topic, does everyone, even to the least talented, feel compelled to use their creativity in writing and performing music during this blessed season? (You've got to admit there is an infinite amount of writing of Christmas music going on and it ain't all pretty).

Why is Christmas music a big deal? I concede to my first point. In the dead of winter, when we remember God's first footprint on earth, flowers have sprung up. God visited us, and we were affected.