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Christmas holiday's meaning enhanced by music

Thinking it Through

T he ever-expanding Christmas holiday season from 12 days beginning Christmas Day and ending on Epiphany January 6, and anticipated by Advent four Sundays prior; but now commencing even before Halloween (hence my term: Hallothanksmas); is more characterized by perpetual merchandising and unwelcome Grinching than religious piety. But nothing bridges the yawning gap between secular enthusiasm and genuine faith more than music.

We hear recorded music, of course, in the shopping malls and on radio and television, but also live music in churches and concert halls. And, as it happens, a live remake of the original Broadway show and movie “The Sound of Music” was presented on NBC that tied in rather nicely with the holiday, even though there is no explicit connection to it.

Faithfully, the glorious sounds of Handel’s “Messiah” invariably ring out every year, including the traditional sing along at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles last week that my daughter and I had the pleasure of participating in along with a thousand or more other folks.

Let me put it this way. Nothing brings us closer to God than singing His praises, preferably to music that uplifts us along with the text. The excellence of “Messiah” manages simultaneously to neutralize the militant secularists who want to bury Christmas and to attract believers with limited exposure to beautiful music. The genius of Handel, of course, is not the work of Handel.

Truly beautiful music is not only synchronous with what is Good and True, but can help us rise to challenges and overcome our fears. Music stirs the soul, and in the right hands it moves us to do the right thing. Notation itself may be neutral but the musical scores devised by skilled musicians never are.

Let us review “The Sound of Music” for confirmation of these truths. Music is Maria’s daily companion. It is not altogether welcome in the abbey where she has commenced her life-long nun’s vocation, as reverence more than joy marks the singing there. But music practically defines Maria even as it enables her to transform the von Trapp family from a tightly run naval vessel, the result of a retired navy captain’s attempt to shut out the unhappy memory of his young wife’s passing, into a happy, enthusiastic reunion of seven children with their distant (literally and figuratively) father.

We modern people tend to have a rather constricted idea of music. We think it is performed only by people who sing or play musical instruments. But the ancient origin of music included what we call poetry as well. In fact, the word music was bound up with the muses, called rhapsodes in ancient Greece, who read or sang their poems with great feeling.

Many who claim to disdain poetry are in fact lovers of it in the form of the songs they enjoy, be they popular, classical or sacred. For rarely is it the case that songs do not rhyme, even as that requirement seems to have been abandoned by a multitude of mostly bad “poets.”
Without stirring music, no movie can effectively portray the courage of Captain von Trapp in defying the Third Reich’s attempt to enlist him in its service, not to mention the escape of him and his family to the Alps. It is partly because we are used to it, but more fundamentally because the movie-makers know it would be a colossal mistake to leave it out.

At this time of year when millions mark the birth of the Savior, they announce the event with the most beautiful music they can find or devise, enthusiastically recalling that world-changing nativity. Spoken words pour forth in the worship services but the music, in my opinion, in giving inward expression to the mystery — and surely, the virgin birth is a mystery — of the Incarnation picks up where speech alone leaves off.

Singing angels are no less inevitable than they are ordained. A prosaic rendering alone would not only fail to convey the meaning of the event but would fail to reach our hearts along with our heads. The Psalmist was a singing poet, after all. So were the evangels.

Our most beautiful Christmas carols are of relatively recent origin, written in the last couple of centuries, reflecting the highest moral and spiritual aspirations of the Christian West. They were sung heartily by lukewarm or non-believers no less than by believers. It is a sign of the times that all over Europe and America militant atheists are now demanding that public school children be forbidden from singing them.

As I am not a prophet, I will not venture to predict the outcome. But if right prevails, it will be attributable as much, if not more, to the carols themselves than to the best arguments of their supporters.

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at

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