Monday, December 15, 2008

The Meaning of Christmas Music

Given that one of the most sacred of Western holidays has already been irreversibly commercialized, will we ever know the true meaning of Christmas music?

By: Vanessa Uy

I’ve just found out recently that even people who claimed themselves to be devout and / or pious Catholics can’t seemed to provide a good enough definition – to me at least – on what is Christmas music. Given that there won’t be an overarching “easy solution” to this intransigent problem any time in the near future, should we – in good confidence – just resign ourselves to the fact that the true meaning of Christmas music is, well, meaningless? But before all of us resign to this somewhat distasteful inevitability, here are my various representative candidates on the true meaning of Christmas music and what they bring into the Christmas music debate.

On the “over-commercialized” Santa Claus-is-invented-by-Thomas-Nast front, Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” (written by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells) has been well-established as all secular joy and seduction set in the Yuletide Season. Which, to me at least, another “very appealing” tentacle of America’s infamous commercialization of the most holy of Western holidays, which unfortunately was deemed “desirable” by more than a billion non-Americans around the world.

Modern Rock and Pop and Heavy Metal-based Christmas music (Trans-Siberian Orchestra, A Very Special Christmas, Just Say Noël, etc.) might not be everyone’s cup of tea despite of its relentless widespread popularity. But given that over 90 per cent of them donate a significant portion of their proceeds to charitable and humanitarian organizations of their choice, do they pass muster as Christmas music?

Given that most devout Catholics – even priests – under 40 that I know of “choose” not to use their brains for the enjoyment of Classical Music (like the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc.), will they ever view Medieval period Liturgical drama music as Christmas music? Their Friedrich Nietzsche and Prof. Richard Dawkins loving counterparts already have. But to me at least, ”Hymns for All Seasons: The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge” surely passes muster as “old school” Christmas Music.

Given that there is already a growing consensus that Santa Claus is a native of Kyrgyzstan and possibly an observant Sufi Muslim, will the Islamic Devotional Music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan be ever considered as Christmas music? Well, our local Sufi community seems to be unabashedly performing live concerts of Qawwali or Islamic Devotional Music during the Yuletide Season since last year.

Or what about those Christmas music with a nautical / tropical Caribbean cruise vacation theme – especially one’s by Jimmy Buffett? Well, Jimmy Buffett’s Christmas Island had never been my cup of tea even though I’m a very big admirer of the artistic merits of his musicianship. Questioning Buffett’s Christmas Island’s relevance as Christmas music might cause me to anger “Parrotheads” around the world. But given most Americans and Europeans with money choose to go to the Bahamas or other tropical vacation locales during the Yuletide Season, then the validity of Jimmy Buffett’s “version / visions” of Christmas surely has validity.

There you have it, despite the onslaught of commercialization Christmas music has never been easier to define. Much less accept the idea that it is utterly devoid of any semblance of meaning. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have this Death Metal Christmas music Website recommended by a friend that I have to visit.


Letiche said...

I do agree that an overwhelming majority of Parish Priests under 40 years of age are extremely clueless when it comes to "hardcore" Classical Music like the works of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart - let alone the more recondite Classical composers that belong to the "Favored Forty".
I do agree that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's music is too unseemly as a Yuletide Season music, but since there is a growing evidence that Santa Claus is from Kyrgyzstan and might be a practicing Sufi Mystic, then it could be a good thing. Did Ibn Battuta met with Santa during his travels?
Other "unseemly" Christmas tunes include Liberty Bell by The Gathering - from their How to Measure a Planet album, I first heard it back in December 24 , 1998. Yery christmasy "space-rock" by the way.

Lilith Fair said...

I think alarm / clock radios are to blame. When I was little, I remember waking up to Poison's I Won't Forget You just three days before Christmas 1987. I often mistake that song for being included in the A Very Special Christmas album.
Speaking of The Gathering's "How to Measure a Planet?", I too mistake Liberty Bell as a Yuletide tune because I often wake up to it towards Christmas morning.
Santa as a Sufi Mystic? Too bad the Hippie Movement / Psychedelia of the late 1960's missed that one. Ravi Shankar (isn't he a Sufi Mystic?) would have been proud.
Probably the weirdest Christmas Music would be John Zorn, imagine mixing free jazz with death metal's shred guitar work.

Vanessa said...

I do agree that clock / alarm radios deserve most of the blame, but I've never acquired a taste to Jimmy Buffett's vision of a Caribbean / Tropical Vacation Cruise Christmas.
I do find it strange that our local FM radio stations - the better ones anyway - often play The Gathering's "Liberty Bell" from their 1998 album "How to Measure a Planet?"
Speaking of unseemly Christmas Music, I do find the recent trend of playing Islamic Devotional Music like those of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan during Christmas Morning using the "celebration of spirituality" excuse also a bit too dodgy to me. Although given that quite a large number of people already embraced the idea that Santa Claus is a practicing Sufi Mystic from Kyrgyzstan, the practice does deserve the right to become trendy.
But for now at least, I'm sticking to Handel's Messiah as my choice of Christmas Morning music.

Sarah said...

I did find it a bit "unusual" that the Turkmen-Chechen "independent radio station" you referred to chose to play The Gathering's Liberty Bell just because it has the word bell on the title doesn't automatically make it a Yuletide / Christmas music. But nevertheless, The Gathering's "How to Measure a Planet?" album is one of the best albums of the 20th Century in my list. Do Central Asians like it because it is somewhat reminiscent of the Bardic Divas of Central Asia? And yes, I do agree that Santa Claus is from Kyrgyzstan and he's probably helping the Aga Khan aid agency right now.

Michelle said...

Santa Claus from Kyrgyzstan and volunteering for the Aga Khan Foundation? It would be the coolest thing ever for us behind the "Cashmere Curtain" - i.e. the Muslim World.
I don't care if some folke confuse The Gathering's Liberty Bell as Christmas Music, the song can be played almost any day of the year. And when I die, I might choose The Gathering's 28 minute 32 second long instrumental opus "How to Measure a Planet?" during my funeral wake.