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GUEST BLOG: “The Power of CHRISTmas Music!” by Thomas R. Vozzella

       Christmas, the name and holiday designated December 25th. Dissected, its meaning is Christ’s Mass, from Old English, “Crīstesmæss”. December 25t h is the annual commemoration of Jesus’ birth some 2,000 years ago. Just as we remember Washington, Lincoln, President’s Day, Veteran’s, Patriot’s, MLK, Native American Day, St. Patrick, St. Valentine’s Day, St. Nicholas and the many other days designated as historical commemorations. So, is the birth of Jesus – Christmas.
       The historical document of the birth of Jesus is the New Testament of the Bible, one of two books, which was created from manuscripts, as documented by various writers.
       By the way – was Jesus, the little baby boy, born in a stable, a cave, or a barn? He was born in a “manger” (Luke 2:7), which could be found in any of those places. Maybe there was hay. However, it would really be ridiculous to sing “Away in a” wouldn’t it?
       Other variations in the Christmas story:
* Mary riding a donkey is not mentioned in the Bible. Nor is there a donkey skipping for joy (Rutter’s Donkey Carol). She presumably walked from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
* The three wise men, “...kings from orient are”, were at the birth of Jesus. In fact, they were not. It took them around two years to get to greet Jesus (Matthew 2:16). Who, by that time was probably living in a house. Another interesting point is that they were not kings at all. They were wise men, fortune tellers, mystics, magicians, etc. Additionally, there is no record of how many there were. There could have been three, or there could have been more or less.
* Then there are the “shepherds, abiding in the fields” (Luke 2:8-14). If compared to today’s workers, they would be sewer rats, similar to Norton from the Jackie Gleason Show. Historically shepherding was not a noble profession. Shepherds have been glamorized to the point that they are heroes in the story. At first, they didn’t even believe the angels. There response was, “right”!
       To add to this confusion – there is the Little Drummer Boy, talking animals, singing vegetables, Amahl and other fantastic depictions of the birth of Jesus. There are even questions as to December 25th being his birth date. December 25th was designated as the commemoration date by the Roman Church, which dominated Christendom for centuries. Jesus was probably born sometime in *September (Luke 2:7-8), when school starts for children each year - interesting coincidence.  
       All the songs, carols and choral compositions of Christmas highlight the mystery of Christ’s birth. Fact or fiction, the music of Christmas is an expression of joy, and gives us pause for thought. If it were not for the holiday (Holy Day) music, there would be less joy. Winter would be cold, dark and gloomy. What a great gift, no matter what your orientation, be it Hindu (Ithareya Upanish 1.1.3), Muslim (Surah lvii:27 and iv: 171), Christian, Jewish (Jesus was a Jewish carpenter), or any other world religions. Although these religions know of, and some even refer to Jesus, everyone who so chooses, can claim Jesus as Lord and Savior, regardless of spiritual orientation.
       Even with all the misconceptions, and inaccuracies created by various artists and media, music is the most emotionally charged media, regarding the birth of Christ. Aside from their beauty, music and words could never express how marvelous the Birth of Christ actually was:
He was born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem as was prophesied in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament, and his existence is found in the writings of other prophets. The apostle John (John 1) writes that Jesus existed before the Creation of the world, part of the trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Born in human form, the Son of God came as the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of all. God gave the gift of His Son freely, there are no strings attached. Nothing is required to receive this gift.
       That is the difference between Christianity, and other world religions. That is why Christmas and its music is filled with expressions of love, peace, joy and goodwill. The gift of salvation is free; one does not have to do anything to receive it. Music is the essence of human experience. Music is a living, breathing organism that comes from the depths of our hearts to the listener. The music of Christ is art for all, as all art is a gift from God, and all gifts from God are free to all.
Merry CHRISTmas!
* Shepherds were not in the fields in December. The weather in Bethlehem (near Israel) is similar to that of the US, as both are on the Northern hemisphere.
on December 24, 2013 4:46pm
After reading Thomas Vozella's blog regarding the Power of CHRISTmas Music, I sent it to my musician daughter to read. We were both somewhat surprised that she felt compelled to put her thoughts on the subject into a message (with which I concur). I would like to share her thoughts here for others also to read.  Having not done a reply to a Blog here before, I hope I'm doing this correctly and I hope this is acceptable to the editors.    Carol Faust (retired member)
The Power of Christmas Music – A Response
by Heather Faust
© 2013
We hear it a lot this time of year.  Whether at work or at school or in the grocery store or the shopping mall or driving in the car, it’s hard to escape Christmas music.  But what is “Christmas music,” and why is it so pervasive? 
Or should we call it “Holiday music?”  For of course there are many who don’t celebrate Christmas.  And there are many other “holy days” being celebrated this time of year as well, so “Happy Holidays” is more inclusive of all traditions.  But while winter holidays do include celebrations such as Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, and the New Year, among others, most of those holidays don’t have the sheer abundance of music that Christmas does, and certainly their music hasn’t been as widely promoted and isn’t as well known in the general population.  Without a doubt, those who celebrate Hanukkah know the music associated with their holiday.  But by and large it’s not played on all the major radio stations or heard by a wide cross-section of people.  So “Christmas music” it is. 
However, even within “Christmas music,” we find a wide variety of themes:
  • There are traditional Christmas carols and hymns, usually telling some part of the story of the birth of Christ.  Many of these date back centuries, either in their words or their tune, and many of them have their roots in the early Christian church or even the pagan traditions that existed prior to and along with early Christianity. 
  • There are songs about Santa Claus.  These generally date to the mid-19th century and later, as public/civic celebration of Christmas did not really exist in the United States until that time, and this is where we get our modern concept of Santa Claus (there are of course European versions of Santa Claus that date back many centuries, even as far as the original St. Nicholas in the 4th century). 
  • There are songs that describe the beauty (and chilliness) of winter, and songs that tell of the passing of the old year to the new.  The ones we are most familiar with date from the 20th century, but there are some that come from earlier eras as well. 
  • There are also many lullabies found in the traditional Christmas music of many nations around the world.  Some of these are sung directly to the Christ child, while others are more generic.
  • And there are more modern songs, often either humorous or sentimental, usually in a popular style, that simply tell a personal story of the season, of gift giving, or of some aspect of celebrating Christmas. 
From a purely academic perspective, some Christmas music is beautiful and well-crafted in its respective genre, while other Christmas music is…not.
So, after all that, what IS “Christmas music?” 
Or maybe the question should be, WHY is “Christmas music?” 
When it starts up in the stores around Halloween, many of us groan.  And for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, either the religious or the secular holiday, it might be particularly intrusive as an ever-present reminder of just how Christian-centric our culture is.  But if we go back to the earliest origins of the holiday known as “Christmas,” we find some interesting things.  First of all, there’s not just one holiday.  It turns out that many early cultures (see the birth of Mithras, Dionysus, Horus, Aeon, etc.) have a very similar story of a mid-winter virgin birth to a “Light of the World,” and in this Light of the World is where I believe we find both the significance and the power of Christmas music.
Quite literally, “Christmas,” or “Christ-mass,” is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, as told in the gospels of the New Testament in the Christian Bible.  The actual historical date of the birth of Jesus Christ is unknown.  We know it was at a time of year when “there were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”  This means it was absolutely not in December, as this is the one time of year when shepherds would not be doing such a thing as the weather in the region would not allow it.  Some scholars say Jesus was born in March.  Some say September.  Some say it was in the summer.  However, we celebrate Christmas in December.  Why?  Because the Winter Solstice is when the “Light of the World” is welcomed! 
The birth or rebirth or return of the light as the days begin getting longer was celebrated at this time of year for centuries prior to the birth of Christ, in cultures all around the world. And what better way to firmly establish a new religion than to co-opt existing celebrations and replace them with your own, since the underlying theme is still that of the birth of the “Light of the World.”  So while Easter was the primary focus of early Christianity (and coincidentally was placed at the same time as other early, pagan celebrations of rebirth and new life), once Christmas finally began being celebrated by the Church, sometime in the 4th century,  it was placed in December to coincide with the winter celebrations already in existence.
And “Christmas music?” 
  • Interestingly enough, there have been many times in the history of Christmas, as well as just in the history of the Christian church, that music has been frowned upon and discouraged as having too much of a pagan element.  But music is a means of communicating, of telling a story, and in the years before general literacy, music was a way of telling the story the Church wanted people to know and believe. 
  • Music is a powerful vehicle for expressing emotions, for sharing what’s in your heart. 
  • Music is a way of joining together a community in a shared experience.  Christmas caroling and sing-alongs are such a part of modern Christmas celebrations that we might be forgiven for assuming it was always this way.  However, in the early Church, music was performed by priests and church officiants only, and not by the people.  That experience of sharing community through music initially came from the secular side of Christmas, and became widespread only much later. 
  • Music is a part of virtually all cultures and all celebrations, both sacred and secular.  
Of course some of it is specific to Christianity and may not appeal or relate to those who are not Christian by faith.  But an understanding of and respect for all world religions and the common values they share can only enhance our experience of our own.  Setting specific theological differences aside for the moment, and even setting aside the need for any religious practice at all, we all can share the experience of the return of the light; the days getting longer; the cold (in the Northern hemisphere, that is); the snow (where it snows, of course, and the rest of us can dream of a White Christmas…); the beauty of holly berries and evergreen boughs and candles in the dead of winter; the miracle of Nature and the passing of the seasons from winter to spring; the joys of spending time with loved ones around the fire, of sharing special meals and treats, of giving and receiving gifts, of reminiscing about holidays in the past; and the heartfelt wishes for Peace on Earth and hopes for brighter days to come. 
The power of Christmas music today is that much of it contains elements of all its historical and religious aspects, and it can even transcend the boundaries between various world religions if we listen to what it’s really saying. 
Even some of the Christmas carols we think of as “Christian” today have their roots clearly in the pagan celebrations of pre-Christianity.  The Holly and the Ivy, Deck the Halls, O Christmas Tree, Here We Come A-Wassailing, and others bear evidence of the mingling of winter traditions over the ensuing centuries.
Many secular Christmas songs focus on the theme of “home for the holidays” – White Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,  Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, etc. all capture a nostalgic longing for home and family.
The power of Christmas music is that it is joyful and hopeful and full of beauty and wonder and love. 
  • Not everyone loves the snow and the cold.  But Christmas music finds a way to celebrate winter. 
  • Not everyone believes in Santa Claus.  But Christmas music celebrates the joy of giving. 
  • Not everyone believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  But Christmas music tells a great story – sometimes historical, sometimes rather fantastic.  
Wouldn’t it be interesting if all great historical events were set to music?  In earlier times, they were!  Minstrels and bards told long sagas through music, and music was a way for entire communities to share the experience of important events.  Whether we realize it or not, whether sacred or secular, much of Christmas music comes directly from this tradition.
So, when we hear the first Christmas songs begin to appear in the fall, months before Christmas, we may feel as if the “power” of Christmas music is that it has the ability to get into our heads and annoy us for the next two months.  (This is especially true for those songs that are not well-crafted, of which there are unfortunately far too many…) 
But there’s another power in the music of Christmas, which is the power of bringing us together in community; reminding us, regardless of cultural or religious differences, of our shared heritage of waiting expectantly through the dark nights of winter for the light to reappear; helping us celebrate the beauty and wonder of all seasons including winter, the lengthening of days, the expectation of warmer days and a prosperous growing season to come, and the welcoming of light and love into our hearts.
Some Additional Resources:
Christmas Customs and Traditions, Their History and Significance, by Clement A. Miles
Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1976
(unabridged reprint of Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, originally published by T. Fisher Unwin, 1912)
The New Oxford Book of Carols, edited by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott
Oxford University Press, 1992, reprinted 1994, 1998
The International Book of Christmas Carols, by Walter Ehret and George K. Evans
The Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1980
(originally published by Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963)
Christmas Music Companion Fact Book, by Dale V. Nobbman
Centerstream Publishing, Anaheim Hills, California, 2000




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