Christmas time,to paraphrase someone I know, seems to be somewhat like the Rorschach test of holidays: everyone has a different interpretation of it. Is it a religious celebration of the birth of Jesus? Is it only for children? Is it a giving time? Is it a waste of time? Its actually a very flexible and mongrel holiday as celebrated today. As far as myself,someone who is a secular humanist its a giving time. Giving gifts,giving love,giving memories. Within the past few years,it seems as though the fast paced and presumably self centered modern world of working,going to school and living by ones iPhone just adds ammunition to the Scrooge-like holiday cynicism that its only a time to celebrate the crass end of capitalism. To others not celebrating Christmas or holidays in general is an act of rebellion. Perhaps for cynical reasons,perhaps not. But there is one thing about this time of year that continues to fascinate me and that’s the music.
In America at least,Christmas is the only holiday in which a specific genre of music is associated with it. There are a classic body of songs almost every American knows by heart. And new ones are written all the time. It’s called Christmas music. Its not there to tell us to buy gifts. Sometimes its to remind us to give. Other times its to remind the religious to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ. How interesting is it that some of the most classic Christmas music comes out of rock ‘n roll itself-by The Beatles,Phil Specter and even Jimi Hendrix. Of course,mainly interesting in the sense rock ‘n roll has long been denounced as “the devils music” by many Christian zealots. Many people have had their own experiences with Christmas music. In fact this year having bought Christmas albums by Ledisi,James Brown and The Whispers this qualifies as the most Christmas music I ever bought. Odd for a unique genre that seems disposable if only for its one month of appropriate usage. Yet I have two vital memories associated with Christmas and music-though not necessarily exclusive to each other.
One such memory occurred during the Christmas season of 1994. My family and I would always visit my fathers family in the nearby town of Stillwater. It was a warm,cozy,comforting and (to my memory) very colorful environment that was full of the spirit of love and family. My grandfather took all of us out for a ride to look at Christmas lights-to this day one of my very favorite events of the year to do. We rode for a radius of about ten miles around their home-seeing lights of many sorts and colors. During this time I was deeply engaged in listening to a 1980 album by The Jackson’s called Triumph,which I had on a cassette tape. One song on the album was called “Give It Up”-whose conclusion was this melodic march with this surreal backdrop of dinging echoed bell-like electronics in the back round. When visiting a nearby area called French Island,the roads were so narrow that the huge displays of lights seemed to wrap the vehicle,myself and my family up like a multi colored Christmas blanket. Though not at all a Christmas related song,that dream-like conclusion of “Give It Up” rang through my head at and after that moment. It was like a visual expression of that sound playing out in my conscious mind.
Another memory actually just occurred. My mother was watching Tavis Smiley’s PBS talk show as she regularly does. She informed me that Mary J. Blige was releasing a Christmas album that she was very proud of. In my history of being a music admirer,Christmas albums have unfortunately often seemed to represent an artist either contemplating temporary retirement or the end of their career. Also the presence of arranger/producer David Foster and guest Barbara Streisand,while both musically talented people,made me scratch my head since neither would seem to mesh well at all with Mary J’s musical style. When I actually heard the breadth,variety,sincerity of performance and above all its soul it actually emerged as one of the finest Christmas albums I’ve heard in my life. An honorable mention of course would have to go to the 1988 GRP Christmas anthology-featuring a surprisingly eclectic mix of instrumental Christmas standards with a fusion jazz twist.
Overall I have felt a bit sad much of this holiday season,as the very qualities I love about the Christmas season seem to have faded from the consciousness of people. And much misery from some people I knew came my way with much force. But this afternoon I was talking to my father about Christmas memories and family,and he made mention that he felt that is what Christmas meant to him. It was by far the most satisfying moments of a season that’s growing better for me personally,and fast. Also I was watching Christmas In Washington-hosted by President Obama,First Lady Michelle and their two daughters. One of the musical numbers was one of my favorite modern artists Janelle Monae’,performing an absolutely beautiful rendition of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song”,of course made famous by the iconic Nat King Cole with violinist Joshua Bell. Christmas sometimes provides an easy label for stress we can put upon ourselves. Even those such as myself hoping to make it happier for others. But its also like a human recharging mechanism to me-the beginning of week long process of resolving the proceeding year before entering another. And as they say if music be the food of life,play on! A very happy holidays to everyone!
Janelle Monae And Joshua Bell At The White House,2013