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EDITORIAL | Oh No No? : The Problem With Christmas Music Programming (Part One)

By Robin Roger on November 30, 2016

Christmas Music in a Multicultural World — how do non-Christian music lovers get through December? (Part One)(Photo: Peter Norton)
Christmas Music in a Multicultural World — how do non-Christian music lovers get through December? (Part One)(Photo: Peter Norton)

Part One:  Before Multiculturalism

[For Part Two, Read Here.]

Toronto is justly proud of its ethnic, racial and religious diversity, and can legitimately claim to be one of the most multicultural cities in the world.  But judging from the concert listings in December, you would think that this is a homogenous Christian city.  Toronto’s demographics are changing faster than a speeding bullet, and while Christianity is still the largest faith group in Toronto, it is only by a small percentage.  In the not too distant future the seemingly insatiable appetite for The Messiah and Christmas Carols may diminish.

Feeling a disconnect between the diversity of the world around me and the dominance of Christmas music in December, I’ve been chatting casually with folks from other faiths who now make Toronto their home.  This informal exploration, gave me a lot to think about.

My curiosity about the attitudes of non-Christians definitely grows out of my childhood here as a Jewish Baby Boomer, when Jews were essentially the only religious minority in Toronto.  Multiculturalism as a government policy was launched in the early 70s, and immigration shifted the population of Toronto gradually.  But before that, diversity in Toronto meant a mixture of Jews and Gentiles for the most part.  (There were other communities here, to be accurate, such as Chinese and First Nations.)

At Rippleton Road Public School, in Don Mills, circa 1959, I began my day by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, alongside 34 other students; at least 30 of who were Christian.  We read a passage from The New Testament daily, and sang all the canonical Christmas carols in music class.  It was a Christian curriculum in a Christian world.

When questions arose for me about the difference between my religion and my classmates’, my parents gave me child-friendly guidelines for staying within Jewish boundaries when the curriculum took me into theological territory.  Basically, this amounted to watching my words.  Where carols were concerned, phrases such as “silent night, holy night” were neutral, but lyrics such as  “Christ the ever lasting Lord” or words to the effect that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, or the Saviour, were not Jewish beliefs.

There was a sweet spot that wasn’t pointedly Christian or Jewish, such as saying “season’s greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas”.  Hair-splitting as this may seem, it allowed me to feel genuinely Jewish in situations where the default assumption was that everyone was Christian.  It heightened my awareness of lyrics, secular and sacred, and initiated a sense that faith is about things you say — and that you don’t say.  To this day I believe that words matter.

But even though it was fine to sing “Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you lead my sleigh tonight,” it was mildly alienating to sing songs for a holiday that everyone was celebrating but me.  It was a bit like being a vegan at an all-you-can-eat roast beef buffet.  Even if you have your own dish of tofu waiting for you at home, watching all the carnivores relish their food feels depriving.

Of course as an adult I’m not compelled to sing carols, but I still sometimes find myself in situations where it is assumed that I can and want to, including public concerts.  Something as seemingly innocuous as standing for the Hallelujah Chorus feels like being in a congregation instead of an audience, and singing along, especially to such lyrics as   “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom… of his Christ and of his Christ”, feels inauthentic.

So concerts in December can be tricky.  But there are many Jewish music lovers, not to mention Jewish musicians, who enthusiastically attend and participate.   Jewish and Christian sacred music have common sources, so many with a taste for one have a taste for the other.  A fictional case in point is Eve Bercovitch, the heroine of Nora Gold’s recent novel, The Dead Man,, about the aftermath of a love affair between two composers of Jewish sacred music.  Eve fondly recalls, “The first sacred music she ever heard […]  the hymns and Christmas carols that all Canadian public school students forty-eight years ago had to learn — “Abide with Me,” “Silent Night,”  “O Come All Ye Faithful” — and she has loved them ever since.”

I recently asked Gold how a composer who devotes her musical skill and creativity to composing sacred Jewish music, would retain this taste for Christian music.  She told me that “Eve is not parochial musically or any other way.  She is a secular Jew who loves sacred music because of her life long love of Western classical music, so her compositions draw from that tradition.  She would have gone to The Messiah without a qualm, she would not have boycotted any religious music,” Gold said of her character.  “Music doesn’t know borders,” she concluded emphatically.

It’s an appealing assertion, but problematic for those who prefer to have strong borders.  At the beginning of the school year, a Muslim father who made the news by asking to have his children exempted from music classes prompted a lot of commentary.  On his blog, Toronto composer and critic Colin Eatock recounted an incident from his school years:

The issue reminds me of a girl who was in my class in public school, many years ago. …every morning, just before students sang O Canada, she would slip out of the classroom, returning a few minutes later.

One day, I asked her why she did this. She explained she was a Jehovah’s Witness, and her religion did not believe in “worshiping worldly nations” (or words to that effect)…Her exemption from O Canada went on for years, without any apparent harm done to Barbara, the other kids in the class, or the nation as a whole. It was an utterly victimless crime.

As it was for me, the lyrics were the issue for Barbara, not the music.  The tune of O Canada, separate from the nationalistic sentiment of the words would not have sent her into the hall.  But when lyrics are combined with music to indoctrinate beliefs, even when the music is beautiful, the words can cause conflict for the listener.  Christmas music — and all liturgical music — is all about the lyrics, whether people pay attention to them or not.

What I discovered, as I’ll describe tomorrow, is that many people do not.


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Robin Roger

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