The Winter Holiday Concert at our Central School (K-12, one building) is a smash hit. Standing-room only. Flashbulbs and video recorders sparkle amid the packed crowd of three or even four generations. The third-, fourth- and fifth-grade choirs are just that: the entire third, fourth and fifth grades, and they sing in two and three parts!
The bands and select choirs from the upper grades, still most of the students, perform like pros, and do it musically. One year I asked the music teachers if they ever did combined band and choir pieces. They both laughed and said, “Karen, the band IS the choir.”
The students show up dressed to the nines — ties clipped or tied, shirts stiff, hair slicked or poufed, shoes shining, middle-school girls teetering on high heels. They look and sound heartbreakingly splendid.
The music is either very contemporary or, if religious, without text. This era of political correctness has kept traditional Christmas carols pretty much out of public schools, and unless the students sing them in church or at home, they don’t hear them at all.
Missing some masters
I wonder if they have missed a very large chunk of their music tradition, including Bach, Handel, Mozart, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Martin Luther, John Rutter, Alfred Burt. . . . Even Charles Dickens titled his first blockbuster “A Christmas Carol.”
I know, carols are blatantly religious and may offend nonbelievers. But music lovers frequently speak of enjoying music by “lying back and taking a bath in it.” By tossing out religious Christmas music, are we throwing out the bathwater with the Baby? Is there some way to co-exist? You don’t have to be religious to love the “Silent Night” of “Jesu Bambino.” Surely those are worth keeping, somehow.
When I began teaching in the 1960s, my first principal said he wanted a “slam-bang Christmas program, but don’t mention the birth of Christ.”
The person I had followed was a traditionalist, who had taught there since the Jurassic Age, and was known for her “Singing Christmas Tree” finale to the concert. All the elementary students — carrying flashlights with pie plates taped on the top with a flame-shaped cutout to make a candle — climbed up ancient, shaky bleachers, made a triangle and sang from her Christmas carol book. No Frosty or Rudolf in this collection, and Santa had only recently been acknowledged. The true miracle of Christmas was that nobody was injured in all those years.
The principal’s challenge resulted in a program based on Phyllis McGinley’s “A Wreath of Christmas Carols,” singing in foreign languages to replace evangelism with diversity.
In a nice touch that combined stagecraft and safe theology, the creche traded the baby Jesus for a 40-watt bulb. We learned “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie,” Pogo Possum’s version of an already secular song, but a culturally significant one. The visiting Japanese music educators who watched asked for the words. I often wonder what they did with them.
Children cannot be sidetracked easily, however. We still sang carols in class, and they asked questions like, “Where is Orientar and why does it have three kings?” Or “Why is she called Madonna? I thought her name was Mary.” Or “Why is there only Mary and Jesus in these pictures? Where is Joseph?” — to which another child answered: “He’s taking the picture, silly.”
My most loved memory is of the boy who drew a picture of his favorite carol, “Stille Nacht” (in German, of course), including the star, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, animals, wise men, angels and a fat little man in front of the manger. When I asked who the little man was, I was given an eye roll and sigh. “That’s Round John Virgin. Don’t you know the song?” I still have that drawing.
Most carols focus on joy and peace and stillness. Peace on Earth, good will toward men. Not a bad idea, all told.
Have we lost a big slice of our past by censoring what we teach in school? Or can the students handle different viewpoints, presented evenly. They can look at religious art, but music is somehow thought to be more invasive, dangerous. Can it be handled with a dispassionate approach? It’s a tough question.
Out here in the country, the silence is deep, more so when it snows. Sometimes in the frozen hush of December nights, you can stand outside and feel a stillness so solemn you hear the angels sing.
Or is it just the kids rehearsing?
Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and gets to play piano for some of the Sharon Springs Central School Christmas concerts. She is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.