December and Christmas: Even in non-Christian Japan, the two go together as naturally as holly and ivy. In fact, December in Tokyo can sometimes seem almost as Christmassy as December in Rome. Christmas trees appear on street corners and in store windows. Garlands and wreaths, tinsel and red candles abound. Vendors do a roaring trade in Stollen and kurisumasu keeki. Teams of jolly Santa Clauses materialize. And everywhere the tinkling, chiming ding-a-linging of Christmas carols fills the air. Whatever else it may be here on Christmas Eve, it is not “Silent Night.”
This seasonal compulsion to break out the Christmas music can be maddening. How often can one endure a piped Muzak version of “We Three Kings” or “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” before one’s spirit of good will frays and dwindles into unseasonal rage? The impetus for it all is, of course, understandable. It is all about commerce. Those supermarkets, department stores and shopping centers are clearly hoping that the festive Christmas songs will warm our hearts to the point where we want to open our wallets wider. And many people probably do. Otherwise, presumably, the retailers would realize they were driving customers away and shut down the cacophony.
Still, the Christmas mass-music phenomenon is annoying, and not only for those who aren’t Christian and won’t really celebrate the holiday anyhow. In a way, it is even worse for those who do hold Christian convictions and realize that the relentless annual chorus actually stands in utter contradiction to the Christmas story.
Properly understood, Christmas is not noisy. It is very quiet. As the greatest Christmas hymn puts it, all was calm when the original Nativity story unfolded 2,000 years ago. All was certainly not alive with the sound of the Chipmunks warbling “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” or massed choirs belting out the “Messiah.”
That birth in a stable on a cold winter’s night was marked, we are told, by privation and humility. One hardly needs to be a believer to understand and appreciate the symbolism, or to grasp the gulf between that silent, iconic scene and much of the music so misguidedly associated with it.
Or, if not the music itself, then its over-exposure. Listen to anything often enough and you stop really hearing it. But the words of many of the traditional Christmas hymns and carols are worth paying attention to separately from their familiar tunes. They have nothing to do with the modern frenzy of giving and getting that Christians and non-Christians alike are plunged into every December. Like “Silent Night,” they conjure instead an experience of slowing and stilling. Consider:
Oh little town of Bethlehem,/ how still we see thee lie.
Beneath thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by. . . .
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
Or this: Winds through the olive trees softly did blow
Round little Bethlehem long, long ago.
Or Christina Rossetti’s evocation of the cold, austere setting of the first Christmas — so different from the lights and luxury of New York’s Rockefeller Center or London’s Oxford Street or Tokyo’s Ginza in December 2005:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
This is not to say that Christmas is a sad or harsh time. On the contrary, it is probably the most joyful occasion in the Christian year, which is why Christians also sing:
And all the bells on earth shall ring
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day.
Or in the stirring words of Isaac Watts (1674-1748):
Joy to the world! The Savior reigns!
Let us our songs employ.
Let field and floods,
Rocks, hills and plains,/ Repeat the sounding joy.
The point, however, is that they ring their bells and employ their songs, as the carol says, on Christmas Day. They don’t act festively all through December, the quiet, dark month of waiting and preparation. And why should they? It is not usual to celebrate a birthday a month beforehand. What a gift it would be to people of all persuasions if Christmas were somehow to be put back into its box, the lights turned out and the music silenced — until Dec. 25.
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