LONDON, ONTARIO – When I was coming into the Catholic Church over the winter of 1983–84, I attended my first-ever midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica downtown and was amazed to see what even then seemed a throwback to something from the earlier half of the twentieth century. In a corner of the raised dais to the east of the altar was a tweedy looking technician wearing headphones and seated at a small wooden table, twiddling knobs on what looked like a World War II-issue transmitter. As inconspicuously as possible, this fellow was modulating the sound level of the entire ceremony – from the pre-Mass community carol sing to the readings and the homily and the Eucharistic prayers to the final rousing, trumpet-propelled recessional of Joy to the World – and sending it all out in a live broadcast over CFPL Radio airwaves to shut-ins and the elderly.
As I say, even in 1983 this struck me as a politically endangered activity of a pro-Christian nature that wasn’t likely to be tolerated for much longer. Sooner or later, I just knew – and hated that I knew it with such certainty – that a round of budget cuts would eventually see to it that such an enchanting public service was eliminated.
In addition to helping raise our own small crop of babies, through most of the 1980s I was also working as a nighttime superintendent in a group home for mentally challenged kids and was magically susceptible to every airborne strain of cold or flu that was going. Circa 1985 or ’86, Christmas Eve found me down for the count; so depleted and weak that even shaving hurt. I clearly wasn’t going to make it out to church on this most supernaturally expectant of nights and staggered through to my study just before midnight and tuned in CFPL on the off-chance that they hadn’t hacked the service yet and . . . lo and behold . . . there it was.
No, it wasn’t as beautiful and involving as actually being there but under the circumstances, it seemed almost more miraculous and precious; a tenuous and unlikely lifeline by which a completely secular broadcaster kept the faithful in touch and helped to spread the eternally good news of Jesus Christ’s birth.
It was a service that may have made it into the 1990s but certainly didn’t make it out. On Christmas Eve of 2002, I was running late and arrived at church just a few minutes before midnight and was lucky to be given one of the last available overflow chairs that were specially set up on the west side of the dais. I was sitting right across from where his little table would have been and that was when I noticed with a dull ‘I-told-you-so’ pang that my technician had quietly packed up his gear and left. But when had they dispensed with his services? Asking some fellow parishioners, I learned he’d been gone for years – at least five, they thought; maybe even ten.
I thought of those old Christmas Eve broadcasts tonight when a roving squad of fifteen or so neighbours – most of whom I recognized – emerged out of the mists of time immemorial to make their way down Rogers Avenue singing carols in pretty decent unison and harmony. How great it is to live amongst people who still want to do this sort of thing. They’d obviously put some real effort into their presentation and declined our offer of a monetary donation; having worked up these beloved old songs strictly for the pleasure and the fellowship of raising their voices together and doing their bit to spread some seasonal cheer. My wife and I are tempted to see if we can finagle our way into their musical ranks next year; unless it would be deemed more efficacious to their enterprise to continue providing a household they know they can approach without being told, à la Love Actually (Lord, what a crummy movie) to bugger off.
In saluting my radio technician and our caroling neighbours, I am acknowledging kindred spirits who recognize that a properly observed Christmas will comprise aspects both grueling and extravagant. It requires that we take a little trouble. Consider that over the course of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there are six different Masses at St. Peter’s Cathedral but I always hold out for the really impractical one that takes place on the midnight hinge of those two days; a time when any sensible person would be in bed. Because Christmas isn’t Christmas if it's only a time for kicking back and taking it easy. Sometimes the bits that work the most magic are wildly inconvenient and too bloody much.
I’ve long been struck by the fancy that, consciously or not, and whether they’re Christians or not, men and women all behave like expectant mothers in the weeks of Advent leading up to Christ’s natal day. We make foraging trips into town to obtain perfect gifts that we then wrap up and squirrel away in special hiding spots until the big day. We spruce up our nests, laying in provisions and comforts and special decorations to see us through the cold and busy days ahead. We succumb to strange appetites for exotic foods – mince pies, fruitcakes, mulled brandy, plum puddings with hard sauce – which make no appeal to us at any other time of the year. Our emotions – usually held in check and revealed only in carefully controlled situations - make sudden disruptive appearances that break through the surface calm of our lives. Two or three bars of the right piece of music are all it takes to send us sluicing into tears. And when the big day doesn’t come off as well as planned – or even if it does – a kind of post-partum depression can even set in during the weeks and months after Christmas.
The music of Christmas carries a lot of the freight of the season’s meaning and it’s uncanny how that power of the old traditional carols is not just retained but deepened as we return to them year after year. Whereas the shelf-life of secularized Christmas music is a very fleeting thing. I don't think anything so tackily summarizes everything I abhor about celebrity culture quite like rooting through collections of inane and once-trendy Christmas ditties by one-hit wonders, sit-com stars, and non-musical hosts of daytime talk shows. These are some of the last people on the planet you'd want to wave to across a very large picnic field on Labour Day, let alone invite into your home and onto your sound system at the most special time of the year.
I used to think it was the mediocrity of talent that offended me in these seasonal turkeys until I saw The Three Tenors perform in some beastly Christmas gala about twenty years ago that was aired as a special fund-raiser for the American PBS network. Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti — presumably these gents could sing. But there they were in a concert hall the size of a small European country, reading from sheet music for a bombastically hollow rendition of Jingle Bells as if it were some aria from one of Verdi's more challenging scores.
Jingle Bells is a ditty which, in all its contrapuntal complexity, three year olds can memorize and will insist on singing non-stop unless you gently threaten to plaster their mouths shut with duct tape. And here were three of the most highly regarded voices on the planet grotesquely struggling to invest this slightest of musical trifles with so much meaning and decoration that it collapsed underneath all the effort. And the proceedings weren't much more edifying when these oversized talents tarted up more traditional, sacred carols with inappropriate vocal gymnastics.
So, no, it isn't an absence of talent which offends me in so much modern Christmas music. It's the presence of billowing egos, either in an ill-conceived song that seeks to imbue the secular with a quasi-sacred significance (as if snow or candles were in themselves holy artefacts) or in a grandstanding performance that screams, "Look what I can do with my voice here! Bet you can't do this. Aren't I fabulous?"
The best Christmas music is most beautifully realized when egos are left at the door. Even in a work of monumental genius like Handel's Messiah, there are no grandstanding moments when any of the soloists are allowed to pull away the listener's concentration from the sacred story so we can admire their ululating larynxes. Indeed, most of the beloved carols are as simple as folk songs and when they're sung by choirs or unflashy solo voices in restrained and straightforward arrangements, they don't bowl us over; they invite us in.
One of the most sublime carols of them all, O Come, O Come, Immanuel, is also one of the simplest. If you've ever seen the musical notation, there's nothing but unadorned black dots on the page as the carol is derived from early church plain chant. As welcome as so many of the great and stirring songs of Christmas celebration are, I hold a special fondness for the more tender carols which allow a definite note of sadness to be expressed. A poignant fall in the notes characterizes so many of the carols I love best – In the Bleak Midwinter; Once in Royal David’s City; Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. Yes, they all celebrate the birth of Christ but also acknowledge the terrible sadness of what He was sent among us to endure for our sake.
I love getting out to a whole raft of professional choral concerts each Christmas. But the best version of Silent Night which I hear all year is the one I help to offer up as one small part of our decidedly unprofessional congregation at St. Peter's midnight Mass". The place is always packed to the proverbial gunwales and Silent Night is our final song before the Mass proper gets underway. For some reason, the tempo for this carol always starts out geologically slow and just gets slower as we proceed. About one verse in, I start to lose myself in this gorgeous, oceanic sensation that I am nothing more than a piece of cork being sloshed from side to side of the cathedral on waves of sweetest sound . . . though, I must admit, I often find it difficult to locate my voice at all for those final, infinitely touching words: "Jesus, Lord at thy birth." It’s the finest prelude I know to worship.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :