Out of the Dark: Christmas Music


Sunday, December 3, marks the first of four Sundays, the season of Advent, that culminates on the evening of the 24th, with the Mass of Christ (from xhristos, Greek for the Hebrew messiah. “savior”) sung early on the 25th.  For most Christians, Adventus, “coming, arrival,” marks the beginning of the liturgical year by announcing the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, believed to be the messiah promised in Jewish scripture. 

 This year, as in every year, advertisers began putting shoppers in a buying mood by playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving.  Traditionalists grumble, but Christmas music, older than Christmas, is music for a dark time, as I explain below. 

We sing.  Humans belong to the family of primates (Lemurs, tarsiers, monkeys, and great apes) noted for having complex vocalizations.  We sing to communicate and express moods.  

Winter solstice, December 21, is the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere, dark and cold.  Any sensible ewe will tell you that lambing season comes in March or April when spring grass greens in warmer, brightening light. There is an early Christian tradition dating Jesus’s birth to April 17.  But we don’t sing Christmas music in the spring because the early Church moved the date to December 25, the birth date of the Persian solar deity, Mithras, who was very popular in Rome and among the soldiery.  If any organization is good at marketing, it is the Church.

Also, the nativity story is dark for a dark time.  Imperial Rome ruled Palestine, and   Herod the Great was a Roman client king, ruthless and murderous.  After his death in 4 BC, Judea became a Roman province, and a census was ordered so an ad valorem tax could be levied.  This fateful step ignited a bloody uprising in Galilee led by another Jesus, from Gemara.  He and others organized the Zealots–Jewish militants, and the Sicarii, “Dagger-men”– terrorists.

To register for the census Joseph and Mary trekked to Bethlehem where she gave birth in a caravanserai stall crowded with livestock.  Jesus slept in a feeding trough, a manger: “Away in a manger no crib for a bed.”  They were visited by shepherds, outcasts in Judean society, and by Persian astrologers (Magi) who gifted them gold, frankincense and myrrh, the last associated with: “sorrowing, sighing, breathing, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”

Fearful of a possible rival, Herod — not dead at this account — slaughtered all two year-old boys in Judea to solve his problem.  Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, the gift of gold probably securing passage to Alexandria with its large Jewish community.  The road they took to the port of Caesaria had been, was, or would soon be flanked by the rotting corpses of 2,000 crucified Jewish rebels who rose in Jerusalem and were made examples by those in power.  

Hence the somber quality of early liturgical Christmas music, plainsong chant in minor keys: “Oh come thou rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny, from depths of Hell, Thy people save…”

In our north, winter solstice has always marked a time of crisis.  The fat days of harvest when ghosts feast with the living were gone, and if days grew longer after the 21st, they were still marked by cold, hunger, and death.  But despair breeds hope, and in medieval times Christmas music employed hopeful seasonal motifs: “the geese are getting fat,” “the holly and the ivy,” “Oh Christmas Tree.” Another custom was  burning a yule (a Norse name for Odin) log for 12 days after Christmas, ending at Twelfth Night (Epiphany), the Feast of Three Kings and gift giving. 

In England Twelfth Night meant wassailing, singing to trees for a ripe fruit or to animals: “Here’s to our cow and to her long tail.”  From village to village, singers sought food and wine from the wassail bowl.  To reassure neighbors they sang: “We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door, but we are friendly neighbors whom you have met before.”  Darkness is never far away.

It shadowed St. Nicholas, a 4th century Lydian Greek Bishop from what is now southern Turkey during his transmogrification into Santa Claus.  Best known for passing three bags of gold coins through a window at night to provide doweries for three girls facing employment as prostitutes (thus he became the patron saint for prostitutes). In Europe he now is preceded by a gang of hairy ruffians: the Krampus, Belsnikel (trademarked as  a dark lager in Pennsylvania), and Zwarte Piet, who beat, mutilated, and threatened to eat misbehaving children.  Santa retains Nicholas’s red chasuble and full white beard, but takes on the role of prosecutor, keeping gimlet-eyed track of all childhood deeds: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!”

The indissoluble bond between hope and the awful shows up in modern Christmas extravaganzas like Babes In Toyland, an operetta composed by Victor Herbert, based on Mother Goose rhymes, in 1903.  Two orphans, Alan and Jane, are sent to be shipwrecked by their uncle Barnaby who covets their inheritance.  They are rescued by Gypsies, but misfortune puts them in the Forest of No Return.  The Moth Queen protects them in old Mother Hubbard’s shoe, but Barnaby obtains the lease and threatens foreclosure.

Arriving in Toyland, the two seek protection from the Master Toymaker who turns out to be in league with Barnaby and is an evil monster who designs toys that kill and maim.  The crazed toys murder the Toymaker.  Alan is accused by Barnaby of the murder, but Barnaby inadvertently drinks poison meant for Alan and dies. Alan  escapes the gallows by an obscure law permitting condemned men to marry widows. Advertised as a “family musical,” the bloody shambles has a heart-wrenching theme song, “Toyland,” and “March of the Toys,” as performed by the Radio City Rockettes.

Another dark-side Christmas special, the Nutcracker ballet by Tchaikovsky, has become the annual money-maker for ballet companies.  For decades Seattle children were greeted by a baleful nutcracker with crazed eyes and huge, gaping jaw filled with teeth.  Back in the 1980s when Kent Stowell and Francia Russel, the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s  artistic directors, who wanted to produce a different Nutcracker, sought advice from  artist Maurice Sendak, who thought traditional Nutcrackers “‘too cute.”  That collaboration lasted more than 30 years.

The idea for the ballet came from Ernst Theodore Amadeus Hoffman’s 1816 gothic horror novella, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a Christmas story set in a German family mansion where the children, Marie and Fritz, await creepy toymaker Drosselmeyer’s gifts.  A nutcracker claims their attention, but when Fritz tries to crack a large nut, the nutcracker breaks.  Freudian red flags aside, Marie holds it in her arms and dreams. 

In her dream hordes of mice led by a seven-headed mouse king spill out over the floor.  Dolls in a toy cabinet come alive and, led by the nutcracker, try to resist but are overwhelmed until Marie wallops the Mouse King with her shoe.  She faints, falls into the cabinet’s glass door cutting herself and bleeding copiously.

Meanwhile magic turns figures into grotesques, children gobble fat, suitors must break nuts in their mouths, but lose their teeth.  Drosselmeyer’s nephew cracks the nut, but stumbles, falls, and becomes a nutcracker.  Healing from her wounds, Marie sacrifices her dolls to the Mouse King who threatens to mutilate the nutcracker, but Marie and her nutcracker eventually survive to marry and become king and queen of the surviving dolls.

Alexander Dumas edited Hoffman’s scary tale before Tchaikovsky adapted it further, but audiences still watch mice and dolls saber each other and fire into crowds point-blank with muskets and cannon.   That is part of its surrealistic magic.

Threats and remembered violence make Christmas music memorable. The most popular, most-recorded modern Christmas song, White Christmas, written by Irving Berlin, was first sung by Bing Crosby on NBC Radio’s Kraft Music Hall in New York on Christmas Day, 1941, mere weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Berlin wrote the song in 1940 for the film, Holiday Inn, released in August 1942, during the battle of Guadalcanal.  Crosby sang it again in another musical, White Christmas, released in 1954 but set during the height of the war in 1944.  

The result is a thoroughly secular song set at Christmas time, drawing its power from the public’s shock, horror, and terrible longing.  After writing it, Berlin told his secretary, “that’s the best song I ever wrote. It’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sung by Andy Williams during his Christmas Special in 1963, is similar.  The song’s context is darkened by the threat of nuclear apocalypse during the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962, and the assassination of South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem on November 2, 1963. They brought war and its atomic threat to national attention.  The song evoked nostalgia and longing for peace.

In all these ways, religious, seasonal, and secular Christmas music answers deep and persistent needs during times of darkness.  The situation in Palestine/Israel today appears awfully like that of 4 BC.  We approach a darkening season lit by a somber yule fire.


  1. Beautifully written as usual, David Buerge! The situation in Palestine/Israel grows worse every day, the kill count rises steadily. But your feature pours a welcome balm of honey on our fears and uncertainties, even for a little while.


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