It’s Christmas time and, unfortunately, I am inundated with constant reminders about this fact. As with every passing year, I get crankier and grumpier that it is indeed Christmas time. Sometimes people will ask me, “Why aren’t you cheerier1? It’s Christmas! Don’t you like twinkly lights? And presents!!!!” I am a human. Of course, I love twinkly lights2. Also, I am selfish, so I love people giving me presents for no reason other than it’s the 25th of December. The problem I have with Christmas is the twinkly lights and the presents (even though I love them). I find that people believe that that is what is actually important about the holiday. The Lights! The Bows! The Pretty Dresses and Mistletoe! They are what make up Christmas. This can’t be right.
I remember talking with a co-worker and out of boredom with our job, we began complaining about how much earlier stores are pulling out and hanging up their Christmas ornaments3. Soon we won’t even remember there is a holiday before Christmas4, we said to each other. Yes, isn’t it terrible? I then cracked some lame joke about how the real spirit of Christmas is buying as many presents as possible to show off to others how much you can afford to buy stuff. My co-worker turned to me, took a deep dramatic breath, and said, “It’s especially sad because the point of Christmas is about being with your family”. She lowered her eyes in faux sadness and turned back to whatever work we were supposed to be doing. I am sure I snorted at this comment. I thought she was joking. Surely, she is joking I thought to myself. Then, I realized, she wasn’t joking. She truly believes this, and I became furious.
Most of my friends don’t like Christmas. Sure, they will readily admit, the twinkly lights dripping off of every inanimate object are great. Their issue with Christmas is family. They don’t have one family. Their families are so fractured and reconfigured with other families that they don’t know where to spend Christmas. I have seen my friends become catatonic at the thought of traveling between 3 or 4 different Christmas celebrations. It’s a stressful, nail-biting, emotional eating, sort of time for them because on good days, they don’t hate their families and yet, they are supposed to be with their “family”. And, then there are people who instead of having multiple families, actually don’t have any. They are widowed, single, or orphaned. So, what are they supposed to do if the whole point of Christmas is to be with your family?
Christmas (and this could be a shocker for some people) actually has nothing to do with presents and sequined party dresses or trying to avoid your family. There is this story about a virgin, a shining light, and the birth of the Messiah. And, as crazy as that story sounds to most people, it is actually the catalyst for this whole season. There is even a buildup to Christmas with a four week long time of preparation called Advent5. Then there is a 12 day celebration of Christmas ending on Epiphany or the Day of Kings on January 6th.
Now, you don’t have to believe in any of this to celebrate Christmas. This is America! You can celebrate Christmas any way you want. But, if Christmas isn’t about the celebration of the birth of the Messiah and it is about buying a bunch of crap or hanging out with your crazy family, then it is the lamest and most anxiety-ridden holiday we have in America. I say sleep in, watch the inevitable “Elf” marathon on TBS, and wait for champagne at New Years.
So what does any of this have to do with a Christmas Concert Review? Well, it started when a friend of mine invited me to see a local singer-songwriter perform at the Anchor Fellowship here in Nashville, Tennessee. I am sure at some point my friend mentioned that it was a Christmas concert6, and this should have denoted a few things in my mind i.e. the playing and performing of Christmas music7. So, needless to say, I was stupidly surprised by the Christmas music that was performed. I expected Jingle Bells, Santa Baby, and White Christmas. Those are all Christmas favorites, right? Instead, Silent Night, O Come Emmanuel, and the Coventry Carol were performed.
They were performed beautifully too. Timbre, who was the headliner of the event, sang and played the harp. Her voice is so soothing, like hot-honeyed tea on a sore throat. You just feel better after you have had a taste.
The audience clapped and some hollered8. Timbre and the other musicians deserved the applause from the audience. They delivered lovely renditions of classic hymns. Even though the musicians played with such elegant tone and sincere emotion, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable after the carols were finished. I was listening to religious music being performed in a desanctified church during a concert that I paid to attend. I point out that I paid to get in because I think that is important. Any other religious site (a church, a mosque, a temple) does not charge a worshipper anything to enter the building and worship their god. To enter as a tourist does cost you9.
All the immediate trappings of a church service were there. People were sitting in chairs lined like pews. There was singing of hymns. We were in a former church. There were people on stage talking about Jesus and how He died for our sins. But, it wasn’t a service, and I felt like a tourist.
What did it all mean? Why were people clapping? Was it for the performers? Was it the sentiment of the songs? I didn’t understand. If I were in a church service, having just heard the choir or even perhaps a solo performance of “Silent Night”, I would not clap at the end as a sign that I really dug the music. No. That would be inappropriate. Music in church was developed as a way to focus the parishioners and, perhaps most importantly, calm them.
But, there I was, in a place that looks a lot like a church, listening to religious music that was having no spiritual effect on me yet. The music was affecting the other people in the audience a great deal. I know it was affecting them. Some were dancing in their seats, their upper bodies swaying with the rhythm, people were taking pictures, and whispering to each other how much they loved “Silent Night”. Were they in the throws of a religious experience? And was I just the tourist invading their worship space10?
I don’t think so. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we all want a reason to celebrate. We want to feel the effect without ever having a cause. Christmas is an effect. Christmas music is also an effect. It is an effect of some people’s beliefs that quite frankly, mean life and death to them. Their God was born as a man so that he could eventually give them everlasting life in Paradise through his own blood sacrifice. That is the ultimate cause of this season. It’s a troubling and strange thing to believe.
Ultimately that is why I have a problem with Christmas concerts. They take something that means a great deal to some people and turn them into an enjoyable entertaining event that is pleasant and innocuous. The religion is put behind a thick piece of glass to admire but not understand. Everything becomes out of context. Museums put religious shrines behind thick glass and in doing so, strip the iconography of its power and purpose. Maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe I am over thinking this. Maybe I should just shut up and sing along with everyone else. Maybe Christmas should be about being with your family whatever that means. Maybe religion shouldn’t be taken so seriously. Maybe Christmas is better if we all just focus our attention on the beautiful presents and twinkly lights.
But, my questions still persist. My question is what does Christmas mean? What is the purpose of a Christmas concert? How are we supposed to treat and react to this time of year? How are Christians, atheists, and people who just love Christmas supposed to celebrate this season?
I am not trying to be offensive or petulant by asking these questions and by asking you to consider them as well. If anything I am trying to understand how complex this holiday and our relationship to it is.
I am asking you not to believe the commercials that tell you Christmas is about getting that cashmere sweater for 20% off. Don’t believe people who tell you Christmas is about being with your family. And don’t believe Christmas carols heralding that God was “born that man no more may die” are simple sweet tunes that are meant to be sung but not understood.
1 Yes. For some reason people in my life, during this time of the year, speak as if they were in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and use words such as Cheer.
2 Unless you are epileptic and then you probably try and avoid said twinkly lights.
3 During the course of this shared diatribe, I realized that I sounded like a proverbial 90 year old crone, complaining about youths in the neighborhood and, I really didn’t care.
4 Black Friday of course! (just joking. Can we collectively forget about Black Friday and make Thanksgiving a week long celebration of no buying and just hugging people, not things, that we love?
5 It’s not just some fancy calendar that is a countdown to the unwrapping bonanza that is Christmas morning.
6 As it happens, more than I would like to admit, people will speak to me and I have every intention of listening and memorizing all of their delicious words. But, the words with all the information chained to them, go in one ear and out the other, as the saying goes.
8 Maybe this is the point where I should tell you I grew up in the Episcopal Church where solemnity over enthusiasm is appreciated and practiced.
9 When you visit London and see St. Paul’s or Westminister there is a fee to enter. But, it is free on Sundays when you are attending a service. If you go to Marrakesh you have to pay to see some holy sites but, you are not allowed into the Mosque at all unless you are a practicing Muslim.
10 Maybe I should state here that I have never had a religious experience during a church service in my life. Never. Nor have I ever met someone who has. So, I don’t know what a religious experience looks like or if it even looks like anything.