Secular Christmas Carols
The truth is that I prefer the traditional Christmas carols, the ones with an explicit religious theme. I like them because they are romantic. At our house, around Christmas time we play the classical Christmas medleys. Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Little Drummer Boy, The First Noel. Interspersed on the same CDs are also secular songs, such as A White Christmas, Winter Wonderland, and Let it Snow. I like them less, not because I am a believer, but because they are less meaningful and evocative. To some extent, it's the literary critic in me that finds a song like Winter Wonderland to be empty and vapid.
However, when it comes to the Christmas concert at my daughter's school, I feel less comfortable hearing those same religious songs that I love in the mouths of the children. Why? Because most of those children are believers, and they don't understand that not everybody else is. They may also not know that one isn't obliged to believe. After all, they are in a government run school, and they may see the singing of the same songs they sing in church in their school as a clear message that theirs is not just the dominant religion, but also a state sponsored one.
Children Singing Christmas Carols
Church Choir Sings "Go and Tell it on the Mountain
Dolly Parton sings "Go and Tell it On the Mountain"
History of "Go Tell It on the Mountain
So it happens that every year, when I go to the Christmas pageant at my daughter's school, I tend to feel a little bit uncomfortable, and I squirm a little in my seat, as I listen to the children singing Silent Night or Away in a Manger. It's not that I don't love those songs. I just don't think they belong in the public school. But I never say anything about it. After all, I moved to a rural location where everybody except for me is a Christian. They are kind, generous people, and most of them really don't know about separation of church and state. They don't mean me any harm. They probably have no idea that I'm not comfortable with this. It wouldn't be fair to ask them to change their way of life just for me. So I say nothing.
However, this year, when my daughter came home and told me they would be singing "Go Tell it on the Mountain, Jesus Christ is born!" I was truly shocked. Why? Because, to me, that's not a Christmas carol! That's a religious song. That's like something people would sing in Bible camp!
Okay, I realize that my reaction is completely irrational. If you judge the lyrics of Go Tell It on the Mountain side by side with the lyrics to Silent Night, they are both equally religious and equally Christian. There is no logical justification for the way I feel. It's just that after years of exposure to Silent Night I have become somewhat de-senstized to the religious message. I feel that in some way, singing Silent Night at the public school's Christmas concert is allowed by some sort of grandfather clause, but we should all agree to not keep introducing new religious songs as public, state sponsored Christmas carols.
Christmas is a national holiday. As such, it has a secular meaning as well as a religious one. Why not stick to secular songs in state sponsored celebrations?
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
The Cultural Bias in Christmas Carols
I shared my feelings with a friend of mine who is a music teacher and she strongly disagreed. "You don't know how hard it is to get kids excited about singing," she said. "Choir directors are always looking for something fresh and with a good beat, something that the kids will like. Plus, this is an African-American spiritual, and they probably chose it be more inclusive."
I'm not against spirituals. My favorite spiritual is Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and it doesn't mention Jesus until one of the later verses, one of the ones that people hardly ever get to. Why don't they choose that one, if they want a spiritual.
Well, apparently it's not about Christmas. Swing Low Sweet Chariot is more appropriate for Easter.
Anyway, if they're just looking for something with a strong beat, why not go for Jingle Bell Rock? Admittedly, it's a completely vacuous song, but you can dance to it!
Original Score to Stille Nacht
Bias, Message and Subtlety
Do I have a bias in favor of Silent Night and against Go Tell It On the Mountain because I like European music better than African-American music? I had to do some soul searching to find the answer. I think my reaction to Go Tell It On the Mountain has more to do with the lyrics, and much less with the style of composition.
The average religious Christmas carol is like a three minute commercial for Christianity. But the really great commercials are the ones that hide the message within a tapestry of images that have universal appeal. "Go tell it on the mountain, Jesus Christ is born!" is not subtle. It preaches to the choir. If you're not already a Christian, the lyrics won't convert you. It's like being hit over the head with a bludgeon. The message is about as subtle as "Drink Coca-Cola!"
Coca-Cola Commercial: "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing
History of a Coca-Cola Jingle that Became a Hit Song
Christmas Version of the Same Coke Commercial
Songs as Advertising
How would you like to go to your child's Christmas concert and find all the children singing a Coke commercial -- a hymn in praise of Coca-Cola? How would you feel if that happened? Well, to some extent, it might depend on which Coca-Cola jingle they were singing. I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing is a great Coca-Cola song because it's almost not about Coca-Cola at all! It's about universal brotherhood! It's a song that unites. Notice how the lyrics draw you in. There isn't a mention of Coca-Cola until the second verse, and by then you're hooked.
I'd like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That's the real thing
As a lapsed Coca-Cola groupie, that song still gives me the shivers. Can you see the looks of rapture on the faces of those singers? Apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves -- who doesn't want that? Every Christmas carol should aspire to this level of appeal. Silent Night has it. Go Tell It on the Mountain doesn't.
"Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace." Not a single mention of Jesus Christ by name! Lots of beautiful, peaceful, natural images. And that virgin with the child? It could be anyone. That's why I don't find that song offensive. For all I know, it could be about me and my family.
In contrast, Go Tell It on the Mountain is not only saying drink Coca-Cola. It's telling you to tell all your friends to drink Coca-Cola, too. It has the brand name right there in big letters, and it exhorts us to go and spread the faith. It's not just a Christian song. It's evangelical.
As a lyricist, I object to it, not because it's propaganda, but rather because it fails as propaganda. Every song has a bias. Every song is selling something. The good songs are subtle about it.
Bing Crosby: White Christmas
Separation of Church and State
The government should not be involved in religion for the same reason that it should not be involved in the economy. We don't want the State telling us whether to drink Coke or Pepsi or make our own soda pop. That's a personal matter between ourselves and our conscience.
The Founders understood this. They knew that even if you did like to drink Cola, no two people could agree on the best brand to drink. So it doesn't matter if the majority of people in America are Christians. There are so many different brands!
The other day my daughter asked me why we have so many churches in this area. Actually, we have four churches, but for a village with a population just above four hundred, that's a lot of churches. "How come there are so many of them?"
"Well, people around here are very religious," I answered, not paying much attention. "They like to go to church."
My daughter rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I know that. But why four churches? Why not just one?"
It was a good question. We have one post office. One grocery store. One restaurant. One school. But four churches!
"Well," I said. "It's because even though they all believe in more or less the same thing, there are some things they don't agree on. These things seem very small to us. But they are very important to them. They like to go to church with people who agree with them about everything."
If the people in our area can't all sit down to Church together every Sunday, why do they think that it's okay to sing songs that market religious dogma in the school that we all share?
But to give them credit where it's due, they are not doing this on purpose. It just really hasn't occurred to them that anyone would want to separate Church and State, in the same way that they don't separate the economy from education.
Last time I went to a parent-teacher conference, along with my daughter's report card I received a packet of coupons for Yoplait Yogurt. Every once in a while the phone rings during dinner and we receive a pre-recorded message from the school's principal exhorting us all to go to McDonalds as a sign of support for the school. I'm always disconcerted by the sight of my daughter's teacher handing out free cookies at McDonalds or taking orders for french fries. To the local educators, though, it's all in a days work.
Which is why I don't make a fuss. This year my daughter will be singing Go Tell It On the Mountain along with all the other fifth graders. And I will be up there in the bleachers, my face plastered with the most supportive grin I can muster. But I wish they were singing White Christmas instead. Or if they must sing a jingle to Christianity, couldn't they at least choose one more lightly sprinkled with SEO?
(c) 2009 Aya Katz
Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
Free Sheet Music: Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
Stille Nacht with translations, notations and history
- Silent Night Web with translations, notation and history.
Silent Night Web dedicated to the Christmas song Silent Night. Includes various translations, notation and history of the song.
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