Merry Christmas from Limbo!
This is my second pass at Christmas on this website, and over the past year I’ve had the good fortune to make many new friends here in Limbo through the “Contact” page. It’s been a pleasure and honor to get to know some of the really remarkable people who are taking a little time out of their lives to read my writing, and perhaps even finding some strength, some consolation, or some education in it. For those who have taken the trouble to contact me personally, along with all those who have become regular readers, not to mention the many more who have stopped by occasionally to read my work via American Thinker, I want to share a little Christmas gift of the most meaningful kind.
For me, having been raised Catholic, Christmas has always lived most profoundly in its music. That may strike some as a trivializing or even irreligious thing to say, but it isn’t, or certainly isn’t meant to be. When I say “its music,” I do not mean “Hey Baby, It’s Christmas,” or whatever they’re playing at the shopping malls these days. I mean the music, most of it at least a few centuries old in origin, that has become deeply embedded in the psyche of Western civilization as the artistic expression of the meaning of the day, the deepest emotional reservoir of Christianity made sensible.
Here then, via our friends at YouTube, are a few of my personal favorites.
First up, the obvious. Every year, straight into my adulthood, the moment in the Christmas Mass that has evoked the most genuine pious feeling for me — that has made me believe, and want to believe — comes at the beginning, usually as the priest proceeds to the altar. This is the moment when the choir and congregation join in singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Every traditional carol tends to sound clichéd and tired when played in a department store — Are they still allowed to do that? — or as background music during a raucous family dinner. But when presented in full focus, without any modernizing or “pop-ification,” and with all attention to the lyrics and melody, at the very moment of greatest anticipation in the Christmas ritual — the moment we “announce” the birth of Christ — this “tired old classic” suddenly resumes its proper role as the musical accompaniment to a miracle.
I usually prefer the carol performed in straight Latin (“Adeste Fideles”) or straight English, although Mario Lanza’s 1956 recording of the combined version is hard to argue against. Nevertheless, for the sake of playing it straight, I think I’ll stick with the one that played in my house as a kid, Luciano Pavarotti’s 1976 recording. There’s plenty of debate about Pavarotti’s learned skill and style, I know — aside from natural gifts — but in this instance, for me, he hits it pretty squarely:
That works well, perhaps best, in a public setting. When I really want to get in touch with my inner Renaissance Christian, however, nothing beats a dark, quiet room, a pair of good headphones, and a good performance of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“A rose has sprung”).
Not to get overly political, but apart from the lovely melancholy of the melody, I find this carol very satisfying as an antidote to feminism. The “rose” in the title is the Virgin Mary. Feminists, because they are Marxists, hate Christianity, which tells us a lot about their real motives. Christianity is one of the most important historical movements in the development of the place of women in society. It is the only major religion in which a woman is a central figure in the faith, doctrinally the second most important human who ever lived. This significantly altered, and one must say enhanced, the position of women in Western civilization. Suddenly a woman — not a goddess like Athena or Isis, but a human woman — was to be worshipped, and worshipped for her essential femininity: her motherhood, her modesty, and her devotion to her child. All subsequent advances of the role of women, sadly up to and including all the recent distortingly harmful ones, have historical sources in the Church’s elevation of Mary, “the Mother of God.” This was something new in human history, and when they ignore or seek to obscure this, feminists show what they really care about. (Hint: it isn’t women.)
I am personally partial to the Tallis Scholars’ 1986 recording, but alas, it’s not on YouTube, so we’ll have to make do with this very good 2001 performance by the ensemble Chanticleer.
Last but not least, a personal favorite version of “Greensleeves,” the 16th Century English folk song that was later transformed into “What Child is This?” In 1965, pianist Vince Guaraldi recorded the soundtrack music for the original Charlie Brown Christmas special. The use of a straight-ahead jazz trio for the music to accompany a comic strip TV special — and a Christmas show of all things — must have seemed odd to many at the time. In hindsight, it is likely that Guaraldi’s relaxed, unique music, including his interpretations of a few classics, has contributed as much to the longevity and evergreen freshness of that very simple cartoon as have Charlie Brown’s “I think it needs me” in reference to his sorry little Christmas tree, Lucy’s indignant “I know when I’ve been insulted! I know when I’ve been insulted!” or Snoopy’s fantastic dance on the piano, followed by his fantastic blush as the music stops.
When, a generation after the show first aired, someone finally had the bright idea to release Guaraldi’s original recordings as a CD, the world got to hear, for the first time, just how ingenious his work really was. And to put icing on the cake — or, perhaps, cake under the very sweet icing — as a bonus track, the producers included a piece not used in the TV production, but recorded at the same time, Guaraldi’s extended improvisation on “Greensleeves.”
Jazz artists have been performing Christmas music forever, of course, but apart from mainstream events like the Christmas albums of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and the like, the traditional carols have rarely fared well in a jazz setting. They just don’t tend to “swing” very well, probably due as much to their cultural sanctity and our profound historical consciousness of the works and their meaning, as to any inherent musical reasons. Somehow, magically, Guaraldi finds the perfect blend of this great tune’s melancholic depth and its hitherto unknown potential as a swinging improvisation. I listen to it at least twenty times every Christmas season. It never ceases to please me, and if I’m in the right mood, it can even move me to tears, as the best “religious music” can, even while I’m tapping my toes and drumming along on the table. That’s a real feat of jazz interpretation.
Merry Christmas, Everyone!