Thursday, December 23, 2010

Who Secularized/ Universalized Christmas?

I am a firm believer that the spirit of Christmas--the increased concern for the wellbeing of others, the joy, the wishes for peace and blessings to all--is to be shared widely, with respect for the religious beliefs of Christians, non-Christians, and non-believers. I also think that the non-religious activities and symbols associated with Christmas--special foods, feasts, parties, gifts, songs, artistic productions--are a way for all to share in the spirit, and, in the Northern Hemisphere, to survive the darkest days of winter.

I have been reading about and incorporating traditions from around the world since I was in high school, and gained a better understanding of the Christmas/solstice celebrations in university after reading Sir James Fraser's The Golden Bough; and books on universal and specific cultural symbols.

Even then, I found the following 2 articles to be interesting takes on the broadening of Christmas' celebrations in North America to be intriguing. Both are quite narrowly focused, and omit broader social movements that had an impact as well, but give insight in to some aspects of how this was facilitated.

The first one, celebrating the influence of Jewish songwriters, specifically Ashkenazi, Yiddish American Jews, is fun, informative, and curiously supportive of the claims that Jewish artists and producers have had a disproportionate influence on North American media and culture.

The second one seems to support the academic theses and books on the philosophical impact of Charles Schulz' Peanuts comic strip. But then again, I am a firm believer that the song "Book Report", from You're a Good Man Charlie Brown should be required study for all--or at the very least for all Humanities students...nah, for all.

Schmeck the Halls: How Jewish songwriters created Christmas
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010 12:00AM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010 3:23PM EST

Oy, Christmas. It just wouldn’t be the same without Jewish songwriters.

At the beginning of December, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers released its annual survey of the 10 most-played Christmas songs. Jews wrote more than half of them: Sleigh Ride, White Christmas, The Christmas Song, Winter Wonderland, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year and I’ll Be Home for Christmas. And that’s just a few crumbs from the kugel.

Silver Bells, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were also yuletide gifts from the sons of Abraham. Johnny Marks, who put Rudolph in flight (twice: he also wrote Run Rudolph Run for Chuck Berry) and gave Burl Ives A Holly Jolly Christmas, wrote at least a dozen other Christmas songs. He was such a specialist in Christmas cheer, he called his publishing company St. Nicholas Music.

So what? Jewish composers and lyricists wrote many of the most successful popular songs of the 20th century. It stands to reason that some of their efforts would have gone into the business of keeping Christmas white, wintry and profitable.

But Jewish songwriters didn’t just jump on the sleigh. They set it running in the first place, and helped create the nostalgic mythology needed to transform Christmas into a secular consumer festival.

The story of modern Christmas music – Jewish Christmas music – begins in 1942, when a Bing Crosby recording of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas became the first Christmas tune to reach the hit parade. That feat, which the song repeated the following year and many years after, touched off a competitive rush of Christmas songwriting. The music industry suddenly realized holiday songs didn’t have to wilt after one season, but could bloom again every year.

White Christmas is the biggest pop tune of all time, the top-selling and most frequently recorded song: the hit of hits,” writes Jody Rosen in his book, White Christmas. Rosen estimates that the song’s record sales have topped 125 million, though it has probably logged several million more since his book was published in 2002.

In just one decade (1942 – 52), Rosen writes, Tin Pan Alley songwriters created “a new canon of holiday pop tunes that, seemingly overnight, had acquired cultural stature on par with Handel’s Messiah, traditional Christmas hymns, and 19th-century secular carols like Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls.”

Those previous exemplars came from people for whom Christmas was primarily a religious event. Nobody in medieval Europe, where carols arose as a popular form of devotional song, could have imagined the materialist binge that Christmas represents today. But the medieval carol, like Handel’s Messiah, contained within it the seed for this monstrous secular plant. Both the oratorio and the vernacular carols opened a space for Christmas-related music to flourish outside the realm of ecclesiastical observance.

Some of those antique compositions persisted, with new words, into the middle of the 20th century, when a mass-market economy was ready for some kind of grand festival of consumption. Something that would dwarf ancient revels like the Roman Saturnalia, the winter-solstice carnival that the early Christians subverted by moving the anniversary of Christ’s birth from the spring (when it is reckoned to have taken place) to the winter.

It wasn’t enough just to tell people to buy; they had to have some warmer, more collective mythology, something related to the generosity supposedly ingrained in Christmas traditions. Never mind that the oldest tradition was all about the miracle of divine birth, in relation to which the gifts of the Magi stood as token offerings to a god. The mythology would be most inclusive if it played down the Nativity, focused on scenery borrowed from Charles Dickens, and translated those images to America – to the white snow, ruddy cheeks and sleigh bells of a rustic Christmas in New England.

The fact that much of that scenery and its sentimental trappings were painted and celebrated in song by urban Jews was not just a fluke of history. Only when Christmas could be defined by people who had nothing invested in Christmas as a religious occasion could the event become secular enough to include everybody with cash or credit card. Christmas as we know it in our malls and superstores needed outsiders – including Jewish songwriters – to make it what it is.

As Rosen points out, Tin Pan Alley’s pre-eminence started to falter when rock ’n’ n roll came in; Elvis Presley’s 1957 recording of White Christmas, he argues, represents a “musical slingshot” aimed at Crosby and his generation’s idea of popular music. But the tunes Berlin, Marks, Jule Styne, George Wyle and other Jewish songwriters wrote in the golden decade of the Christmas song have never been displaced. Each year, performers of all stylistic stripes turn out new recordings of those hardy perennials. They’re still our most potent holiday propaganda.

It may be harder now to tap the schmaltzy sincerity of a tune such as White Christmas, though the international sing-along number Do They Know It’s Christmas? comes close. A lot of new Christmas songs are satiric, as befits a time when many people’s idea of prime yuletide entertainment is The Simpsons’ annual Christmas episode.

In that spirit, the Globe commissioned Toronto songwriter David Wall to write a Christmas single with a bit more Yiddishkeit than Irving Berlin (whose father was a rabbi) would have dared let show. For Wall and other Jewish performers (including comedian Sarah Silverman, author and performer of Give the Jew Girl Toys) [warning, somewhat vulgar, and religiously disrespectful], it’s high time we added Christmas music to the long list of Jewish cultural achievements.

So the next time you hear about grandma getting run over by a reindeer, think for a moment about what she was doing out there in the snow. My guess is she was hurrying home to make a big plate of latkes.

Drummer for ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ is no big fan of the holiday
HALIFAX— From Thursday's Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010 11:18PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010 11:22PM EST

Jerry Granelli had a key role in creating one of the most beloved Christmas shows in television history. But the last surviving musician from the Charlie Brown special has never been a fan of the holiday and wouldn’t celebrate it were it not for family. In fact, only five years after that gig, the drummer became a Buddhist.

“And here I am, the guy who did the Christmas special,” he says, laughing, adding it was his spiritual instructor who drew him to Halifax, where he now lives. “It’s pretty funny. Everybody always asks about the Christmas special and I’m a Buddhist.”

The wildly popular A Charlie Brown Christmas, based on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, tells the story of Charlie Brown’s search for the meaning of Christmas and his realization that it doesn’t have to be ruined by commercialization. Its debut in 1965 was reputed to have been watched by half the American viewing audience, and its appeal seems timeless: This year, 14.44 million Americans tuned in, while historically about a million Canadians have caught it annually.

Mr. Granelli said they were trying to create something memorable but had no clue how successful they’d be. Even now, 45 years later, he isn’t sure why it worked so well.

“Nobody had any idea at the time,” the 69-year-old said. “The whole thing was serendipity. You change any of the people in the room and you don’t have that.”

Mr. Granelli sighed a bit when a reporter called to talk about Charlie Brown, noting that it was an early success in a long and prolific career, but he spoke graciously about how it came about.

He grew up in San Francisco and, in his early 20s, scored a spot on a jazz combo called the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It wasn’t long before they were recruited to create the soundtrack for the television special.

“Vince went into this saying he wanted to create a standard, something people would know,” Mr. Granelli remembered. “You listen to that music and it works. It touches people. And no one can forget it.”

That ability to stick in people’s minds is key to the music’s strength, said Maryanne Fisher, associate professor of psychology at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University, who has done work on popular culture.

She noted that several factors have helped give the special its enduring appeal. It has a slow-moving lack of glitz and an innocence that allows a family to gather to watch. And the music has a memorable simplicity.

“I find the music very interesting because I think it was very, very distinctive,” she said. “The distinctiveness of it allowed it to become memorable. You hear people humming it at this time of year. It really sticks in your head.”

Mr. Granelli said that, at the time, it was just another gig. Only later did they realize they’d created something lasting.

He hasn’t made money from the music over the years, though, having signed away copyright under the system of the day. And he moved on quickly. He had become interested in so-called free music, in which musicians use improvisation as a compositional tool, and kept evolving. He has continued recording and this year put out 1313 on Divorce Records.

Over the decades, Mr. Granelli played with such notables as John Handy, Charlie Haden and Sly Stone. In 1987 he moved to Halifax, inspired by his Buddhist teacher, and now calls the community home. For years he has run a music workshop, in conjunction with the Atlantic Jazz Festival.

“It’s really important for young people to find the originals … the people who did it first,” he said. “You can create boy bands and all those things, but you can’t manufacture something real.”

As for his own role in musical history, Mr. Granelli doesn’t bring that up in class.

“I don’t go back there,” he said. “I’m dealing with a generation of people who saw it maybe when they were five years old. Now they’re 20.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Part 1 of 3.

Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?
What are your favourite Christmas carols, songs, films?

Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree--pre-decoration

Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree--post-decoration

Ever had your very own Charlie Brown Christmas tree? Accidentally, or on purpose?
You tell first, then I will!

Snoopy vs The Red Baron (Snoopy's Christmas)

1 comment:

Susanne said...

Interesting history about the songs! I love "O Holy night" the best.

Cute Peanuts photos! Hope you have a wonderful Christmas!


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