It drives Brendan batty when I forget to turn off the car radio (yes, radio. We’re working with the shabby-chic theme by keeping the original “sound system” in our 2001 Toyota Corolla). And since I’m a big fan of the upper end of the volume dial, cranking the ignition generally means getting a blast of All Things Considered or Shabazz Palaces (if it’s gonna radio, it’s gotta be public. Commercial radio ranks near the top of things that send pointed, ruby-red fingernails screeching down my internal blackboard).
Yesterday I did it to myself. After laps at the pool and a decaf Americano at El Diablo, I tucked myself into our grey, dented chariot and revved her up. Out of the plastic speakers came roaring The Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel’s Messiah. I did what any sensible person would do faced with the dozens of soaring voices of the Robert Shaw Chorale. I turned the volume higher and added my own uncertain soprano to the mix.
The Messiah, written by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel in 1741, is one of the Christmas season’s most iconic works. It was originally intended as an Easter composition, celebrating the birth, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It didn’t become a popular Yuletide tradition until well into the 19th century, but now it swells and soars in cathedrals, concert halls and car radios during November and December, as sure a sign of Christmas as the flocks of poinsettia that congregate at Fred Meyer as soon as the Halloween candy is taken away. And I never tire of it.
I adore sacred Christmas music, particularly medieval and Renaissance English, French and German carols in a minor key: O Holy Night, Silent Night, O Come O Come Emmanuel, What Child Is This, Coventry Carol, Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella, the Wexford Carol…They hint of mystery and magic, of cold winter nights when the sky bursts with bright stars or the air is hushed by falling snow. This music framed my childhood memories of Christmas and is the foundation of the joy and wonder for the season that I hope I never outgrow.
The irony of my adoration of sacred music is that I do not believe the mythology which inspired the compositions. I’m one hundred percent on board that Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, a great teacher and humanitarian, and that he was a martyr to his faith. But it stops there for me. I have no use for religion of any kind. From my upbringing, which included stops in Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, non-denominational Evangelical, Protestant this-that-and-every-which-way churches, I turn full circle to the unhindered state in which I was born. With that slate wiped clean, I willingly admit the presence of a higher power- God, if you will, since we’re speaking English and of the Western World. I’m not an atheist nor an agnostic; to put it simply, I don’t believe in a Messiah. I believe the North Star of my moral compass is a force which surpasses all understanding, but that this force has not, nor will it ever, take human form.
So, this could be a tricky time of the year. It is Christmas after all; how does a non-Christian celebrate a holiday honoring the birth of Christ? Of course, the holiday season is more than just the 25th of December (a date aligned with pre-Christian seasonal traditions, not the birthdate of Jesus). It is a season that transcends religion, that embraces and celebrates the universality of nature and humankind.
This time of year is powerful. I have come to regard winter as that most peaceful and private of seasons, when I find myself listening the most closely to the silence within and without. It is a season of renewal, of the longest night that heralds the beginning of growing light and life. No matter the nature of one’s faith, we come together at the holidays to celebrate family, tradition, compassion and peace. We bring light to dark nights through our music, our dinner tables, our rituals and our hearts- which seem to open a little wider before we set shoulder to the grindstone on January 2.
This is what I celebrate. I celebrate the nature of faith that is most deeply present this time of year: faith in tradition, faith in the promise of a new year, faith that hope is greater than anger, that peace will overcome conflict. That music is one of the most potent expressions of emotion makes sacred holiday music a powerful blend of tradition, hope and divinity. I’ll turn up the volume on any of these any chance I get.
Sweet Solstice, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to All!