Saturday, December 10, 2005

#96 - Music and Christmas

All my life I have lived for this season of the year. Everything about it fills me with the same feelings of anticipation that I harbored as a kid, even if my actual expectations and perspectives have changed as an adult. For instance, I no longer wonder about which toys I'll be receiving this year. I already know. That's the beauty of being the Dad... Momma can only do so much to hide things from me. Not that she won't try.

It is, however, the music of this season that has always (and will always) give me my greatest sense of holiday spirit and cheer. Arguably there is no more sublime music composed than that which celebrates the birth and life of the Savior. I say this in the face of some nearly overpowering music written about his death - say, Brahms' "German Requiem" for example - but none of which fills me with anywhere near the same feelings of "can't wait for that time of year" like Christmas does.

Finding the right "mix" of Christmas music can be a real trick anymore. Bear in mind that I am not such a complete devotee of the classical repertoire that I can't enjoy a recording of Bing Crosby belting out a special Christmas show on the radio many years ago. I also enjoy recordings by such diverse artists as Take 6, Mannheim Steamroller, and even the Chipmunks (*gasp!*). One of the recordings I must listen to every Christmas is the now-classic recording of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians doing their equally classic "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Rollicking good fun, that.

Still, whenever I visit local stores and markets I find myself glancing at their bargain racks of Christmas music by every imaginable (and even unimaginable) artist. Most of these are the moral equivalent of Slim Whitman belting out his "greatest hits" which tended to really be just covers of Slim belting out everyone else's greatest hits. As I sigh in disgust at this musical over-commercialization, I occasionally find a golden nugget.

Around twenty years ago I was visiting Gemco. You'd have to be older than you'd care to admit to remember Gemco. They were Target before Target was even born. They disappeared shortly after Target began its national expansion. (Side note: Perhaps I should have taken it as an omen that the store where I bought my ex-wife's engagement ring went belly up shortly thereafter. Just a thought.) At the front of the store they always had bargain racks of stuff depending on what season it was. This particular Christmas I discovered two albums of Christmas music recorded by the Dale Warland Singers. I've been a fan ever since. They turn out to be one of the best choirs in the country in these post-Robert Shaw days. Still, one just doesn't find nuggets like that anymore.

Since there are different moods to Christmas, I now have a wonderful collection to match just about any of them. I've mentioned the fun stuff. I have, of course, a recording of "The Messiah" to keep me scripturally honest. I also have terrific recordings of Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" with which I became acquainted in high school. Resphiggi's "Laud to the Nativity" is a must every year. As is Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." In fact, I'm rather hoping that Mrs. Woody and I can take the girls to see this live for the first time at one of several local productions.

Friend David B. over at The Whole Note has two posts regarding some of my favorite music. He talks about his own experiences with "The Messiah," as well as another piece that has meant much to me over the years: "Baby, What You Goin' to Be."

"Baby" has been family favorite since it was first published several decades ago. If memory serves, Mother Woody may have picked it up at a publisher's workshop where they hand out packets of music and have everyone sing through them to hear how they sound. Mom brought this one home, and our family's been singing it ever since. In fact, we sang it as a family for Baby Sister's Stake Christmas Concert last weekend for the first time in years. A neat experience.

Similar to David's experience, I found "Baby" to strike an important spiritual chord in me at a time when my own faith wavered a bit. It helped me to overcome a rising cynicism about the gospel in general during a time of the year when people feel constantly bombarded by holiday cheer. Then to sing that song (see David's post for the beautiful lyrics) and feel the power of that message simply cut through me like a hot knife through butter.

I'm all for Rudolph and Santa, and I certainly don't mind hearing about chestnuts and open fires, no matter who sings about them. But don't short-change your own Christmas experiences by ignoring the works of those who have lived and died over the past several hundreds of years. They, too, knew how to celebrate Christmas.

I suspect they still do.

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