In praise of Christmas carols

Today I listened, for at least the 15th time over the past three weeks, to The Seekers compilation of Christmas music, Morningtown Ride to Christmas.  I usually skip over the non-religious songs. They feel all wrong to me; and this year I decided to try and figure out why Silent Night, A Child is Born, Once in Royal David’s City and almost every other carol move me so, and why Santa Claus is Coming to Town makes me cringe.

I think it is partly the music itself – Silent Night, for example, has an exquisite, haunting quality that somehow resonates compassion. Santa Claus is Coming to Town on the other hand, is upbeat and cheery. Now there is nothing wrong with upbeat and cheery per se, but there is something forced about it in the context of Christmas – as if it is your duty to exist in a happy frenzy, or at least pretend that life is essentially a jolly affair. If nothing else, such merry little ditties are a lost opportunity to convey the Christmas spirit; a spirit which suggests that people are just people – no matter how rich, poor, successful, cruel, ill, self-defeating or strong. For once, we don’t have to pretend that we are on top of the world, because being on top of the world is not the point.

Then there are the lyrics. I am not Christian, but I find the story of the birth of a child and the stillness, love and generosity this inspires in people extraordinarily reassuring. That grown men (three kings no less!) could stop what they are doing and be humbled by a child born in poverty carries enormous hope. Poor children are, after all, the absolute bottom of the human power chain. If we could only build a world that revered them, what a world it would be.

The lyrics of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, promise good children, those who are “nice” rather than “naughty”, presents. “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” If it wasn’t so awful, this song could almost be admired for how it manages to cram in so many of the necessary lessons for being a good citizen under our current regime. Do not show emotion, conform, and most of all, replace your desire for love and creativity with a craving for new stuff. 

When did we decide that children were unable to understand notions such as grace? Or that we all have feelings and dreams and can learn to honour those in ourselves and others? Or that being nice to someone is about recognising in another the same capacity for joy and pain that you experience, not about being materially rewarded for your efforts? Or that you receive presents because those who love you want to show their love – and how “good” you’ve been is irrelevant to their desire for you to flourish?

May the spirit of Christmas be with you and those around you.

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