Music for Christmas, and Beyond —by Jinny Batterson
I’m very lucky to have been born into a mostly musical family. Starting as far back as I can remember, my mom sang children’s songs and lullabies to us. Although my dad was not musical, he indulged the rest of us, even sometimes joining in as we returned on long car trips singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” at full volume.
So it seems only natural that I started being exposed to the music of Christmas at an early age. Not just the secular songs, either. Full-blown religious music, from the slow reverence of “Silent Night” to the boisterous bounce of “Joy to the World.” My theology has evolved somewhat since those early days, but I still count the sacred music of Christmas as a special part of my holiday. For several years in my fifties, I was a member of a Unitarian-Universalist choir that provided the vocal background for a local orchestra’s annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” One year, as we were decompressing after completing that year’s performance, a friend who sang a mean bass and professed to be an atheist quipped, “Pretty good for a bunch of heathens, huh?” I’ve sometimes thought that if the only requirement for becoming a member of a particular religious denomination were the capacity to appreciate a soulful rendering of “O Holy Night,” I’d join in a heartbeat.
That said, I have other holiday favorites, my refuges from too many hours spent in malls listening to “Rudolph” or “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bell Rock.” The first is an album recorded by singer/activist Harry Belafonte in 1958. That year, his vinyl LP, “To Wish You a Merry Christmas,” was part of my dad’s Christmas gift to my mom, along with a brand new stereo system in our brand new house. The album combined arrangements of standards such as “Silent Night” and “What Child is This?” with other carols that were new to me at the time, including a few with a calypso lilt. I suspect that at least some of my subsequent involvement with various civil rights causes has as much to do with Mr. Belafonte’s musical gifts as with his spoken oratory.
My second favorite is one special song from the album “Winter Solstice,” put out in 1984. Titled “Christmas in the Trenches,” composed and recorded by folk artist John McCutcheon, it tells the story of the 1914 Christmas truce during the “Great War” from the perspective of a single British soldier. While the 1980’s U.S. and Soviet Union seemed driven to continue playing their escalating games of nuclear chicken, McCutcheon’s song was one anchor that helped keep me hopeful and at least somewhat sane.
The wonder of iTunes has given me occasions to listen to both McCutcheon and Belafonte again nearly whenever and wherever I choose. This Christmas season, if I’ve gotten an overdose of tales of psychopaths, senseless killings, and political misanthropy, I put in my earbuds to be reminded that these current stories provide only a partial picture. Over a century ago, soldiers managed, however briefly, to call a halt to organized killing and instead to enjoy each other’s company.
In a lighter vein, Belafonte’s rendition of “Twelve Days of Christmas” is a continuing delight. Listening to him get from “Twelve drummers drumming” through “six geese a laying” before a breath at “five golden rings,” is fun, and evidence of his amazing vocal agility. However, the Belafonte rendition that most moves me is a different Christmas counting song from his album. Titled “The Joys of Christmas,” it only goes up to five—beginning with the one star of Bethlehem, then two carolers, three wise men, and four shepherds. At five, the song omits any details about who the five are, but sends out their intention loud and clear:
“The greatest joy that Christmas brings, it is the joy of five,
The message of goodwill to men, forever kept alive–
Forever kept alive, good friends, forever kept alive:
The message of goodwill, message of goodwill,
The message of goodwill to men, forever kept alive.
In the same spirit, I want to wish you a joyful holiday in whatever vernacular most suits you: a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Joyous Kwanzaa, a Festive Diwali, or whatever. Most importantly, I wish for you Peace on Earth and Goodwill toward All!