An Atheist Hears the Angels Sing October 24, 2012Posted by craftlass in Uncategorized.
Tags: christmas, culture
Christmas begins very early for me. See, I love Christmas music, from traditional sacred carols to “A Very Special Christmas” (with a few exceptions, of course, like that stupid Paul McCartney song that we are bombarded with every year). A wise man I knew in the music industry summed up great songwriting by using Christmas songs, explaining that a good song is one that can be played in any style from country to heavy metal to your standard family singalong, and that is why even the oldest carols still resonate with us. It was the best lesson that I ever received in this area and I was lucky to get it early on in my adventures in writing.
Each August I pull out my personal songbook of holiday music and start practicing a wide variety of songs for all the winter holidays. I’m not sure why, my dream of having a giant Christmas singalong has never panned out yet, but as soon as I begin each year I realize how much this music has informed my writing, playing, and philosophy of recording.
It’s always a little weird to sing songs about things I utterly don’t believe in (i.e. the sacred carols), just as it is perhaps a bit odd that an atheist loves a religious holiday so dearly. To make it even funnier, Christmas was the original catalyst for my deconversion. When I was 6 I first discovered that there is pretty much no way that December marks the anniversary of Jesus’ birth and how the early Catholics co-opted a pagan holiday to help convince pagans to accept/join their religion. I felt betrayed by my family, the religion I never had a choice in joining, and my teachers and began demanding answers on all sorts of religious issues, especially about the contradictions that abound in the Bible and how much they contradict known history and science. The answers I got from the adults in my life didn’t help, they were patronizing, required that I eschew all logic and reason, and basically I wound up being told that I could believe whatever I wanted but I was still going to have to go through all the motions of being a good little Catholic girl, with Mass at least once a week and all the fairly horrifying (to me, personally) sacraments that are part of such a life.
Kids are pretty adaptable, though, and so I found comfort in joining the youth choir at my church, focusing on my love of music to avoid spending every Sunday morning angry about being in church. I loved choral singing, it gave me my passion for harmony and a deep appreciation for music from all ages. I was lucky enough to have an excellent choirmaster who eventually became my piano teacher as well, and thus one of the biggest influences in my early musical education on several levels. Christmas was the best part of the year to be in the choir, we sang at our Church’s special candlelight children’s mass and it was sheer magic, our voices echoing around our large church bathed in flickering light. I also loved midnight Mass, where the adult choir my mother sang with always performed Handel’s Messiah, a piece that still instantly transports me to a place of peace and childlike wonder.
Granted, it didn’t hurt my love of Christmas that I was pretty spoiled throughout the season every year. The weeks surrounding it were filled with dozens of family members and friends, a blur of presents and food and love and even those good old traditional singalongs, gathered around the piano in our living room. We were never one of those families that fought during holiday gatherings, maybe the occasional disagreement but never the giant fights that are the hallmark stereotype of such gatherings in pop culture. My mother was the doyenne of Christmas, organizing coordinated gifts for all the children, filling our house with marvelous smells of amazing food for all of the myriad parties we hosted, and manning said piano. Looking back, I wish I could ask her how she did it with her busy career, as I have only managed to even get cards out for 2 years out of my adult life, let alone throw at least 4 parties in less than 2 weeks and find ways to make everyone I love feel special, as she seemed to do without breaking a sweat. That doesn’t mean I don’t try, though.
Another wonderful aspect of my childhood Christmases was including my Jewish friends who didn’t have their own family traditions for that day (as many do, since everyone has the day off from work and school). Growing up in an area where most of the kids I met were Catholic or Jewish created a very cool cultural exchange and ensured that we grew up with an understanding that no one culture is more important or valid than another. Seeing the look on a 15 year old’s face as she wakes up to find unexpected presents waiting for her under a giant tree for the first time is priceless! It would have been easy to take my family’s traditions for granted if not for seeing the joy it created in those we invited and the way that participating in a holiday together turned friends into family. This lesson has become very important, as I have lost most of my closely-related family over the years and had to build my own traditions to keep the spirit of the season alive in me at all.
Getting back to the music, a few years ago I decided to make a songbook of easy-to-play-on-guitar songs and their histories as a gift for everyone on my list. One of the interesting quirks of Christmas music is that it has become the norm to chop a lot of verses out of them, in some cases, down to just the first verse or first verse and chorus. While researching the book I found tons of lyrics that I didn’t know existed, some of them revealing far deeper meaning than we get from what little is normally performed. The first one that hit me was It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, which is more of an anti-war and anti-poverty song than Christmas carol. The most recent revelation was that Good King Wenceslas (which is a Boxing Day song, but considered a Christmas song) is truly about being kind to those with less than you have and karma (by the modern not-exactly-accurate usage of the word). These messages are wonderful, far more powerful than tales that only a segment of the world believes in, even if their inspiration comes from those tales.
The downside to realizing this is it just makes me more frustrated with the reality of religions. Before I go further let me note that I think the vast majority of religious people are good people who want the best for everyone. The trouble is that they are usually led by people who care about power above all else and steep themselves in hatred and bigotry and literally holier-than-thou attitudes. Almost all of the justifications for anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-education, and even racist positions come from religion (I say “almost” because the atheist and skeptic communities are dealing with a lot of anti-woman sentiment, we just can’t catch a break in any direction). The minority known collectively as “fundamentalists” are making such a bad name for all religions and people who subscribe to them. They live up to absolutely none of the ideals put forth in any Christmas song. It’s not peaceful to kill or harm anyone in the name of any god or goddess, it’s not charitable to deny your fellow citizens equal rights for any reason, and it is most certainly not loving to consider yourself better than anyone at all based on nothing but believing in things that others don’t believe in.
In Catholic school we were forced to participate in the “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign, fighting back against the commercialism of Christmas. The commercialization is pretty disgusting in general and even outright harmful in times where the economy is poor, I can get behind that aspect, but as I mentioned above, December 25th really doesn’t have anything to do with Christ’s birthday. In a nation where we shove Christmas down the throats of people of all faiths and none, isn’t it time we found new meaning in such a glorious holiday? Why not the very ones which are part of almost every Christmas song, sacred or secular? Peace, love, kindness, charity, and even straight-up fun are far more important than anything that separates us.
For my part, since many of the people I love live too far away to be part of our home celebrations (and I have taken such a long hiatus from playing live or traveling), I’m planning to put my studies of holiday music (beyond just Christmas) to use and broadcast a holiday concert this year. Music has a power to unite that no other medium enjoys and I hope that you join me in singing the songs that you know, even if I have no way of knowing that you did (and I don’t want to hear that you can’t sing. If you can talk, you can sing, especially in privacy. It’s good for you).
If you have doubt in that power just think of the story of Stille Nacht (a.k.a. Silent Night), the first carol ever written for guitar. It was written by an Austrian priest and set to music by his dedicated local headmaster/church organist but spread like wildfire as a beloved folk song throughout the world, long before the days of recorded music, and translated into many languages (estimates suggest up to 300, including various dialects within languages). During the World War I Christmas truce of 1914, English and German soldiers began singing the carol (one of the few both cultures shared at the time) right on the frontlines, voices raised together despite the barriers of language and, well, trying to kill each other. What a sound that must have been! I like to think that those soldiers found much-needed solace and common ground in sharing that experience even as they were required to continue fighting after the holiday.
I’m not an idealist, I understand that the dream of worldwide peace is pretty extreme and unrealistic. Whether or not a God exists (the question that is most unlikely to ever be answered to everyone’s satisfaction) we are certainly not going to gain peace from any source that isn’t human or it would have happened centuries ago. However, the world is waging less war than at any point in before 1946 and we should all do what we can to keep ourselves heading in that direction. We may never be able to hear angels sing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take responsibility to live up to our roles in this verse:
For lo, the days are hastening on by prophets bards foretold
And with the ever-circling years shall come the Age of Gold
When peace shall over all the Earth it’s ancient splendors fling
And all the world give back the song which now the angels sing
–It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, by Edmund Sears