Monday, December 6, 2010

Another year's holiday concert reminds me of how much music matters to the holidays

I hadn’t thought much before yesterday about the role of music in the holidays, but at some point during last night’s holiday concert at church, or maybe earlier in the day when I was listening to liturgical Christmas choral music on the radio while driving, I thought about how music was once considered one of the holiest ways to mark the presence of the spiritual and the belief in the Divine. The early Christian choral music I heard on the radio was written out of a sense of profound celebration. Music isn’t merely an element of entertainment marking holiday gatherings, I then remembered; it is in fact considered a means of expressing witness to the Divine.

The church concert last night included some elements of early Christian music and some elements of the more popular forms of holiday music: standard carols, jazz arrangements, a run-through of Jingle Bells that included all the children in the audience shaking various forms of percussives. It was a wonderful program, just as it is every year, and as I sat there I was conscious of the ways in which the concert carries its own set of milestones and markers of the passage of time. Two 13-year-old girls sang a duet beautifully, and as I listened, I could remember one of them singing in the family choir back when she was a kindergartner, and her earlier solo performances when she was 7 or 8, but I could also remember the very same duet she sang with a friend last night being sung years ago by a young woman who now attends a performing arts college program in New York. I remembered choir members and instrumentalists from years past who have died or left town, and sitting next to our minister reminded me of her predecessor, who loved holiday observances including this annual concert and died prematurely soon after leaving our parish.

But I also remembered how my own family has changed in the years I’ve been attending this annual concert. When we first moved back to town, I took Tim to the holiday concert with me; he was just three years old and a little too restless for my comfort. Holly came with me for the first time when she was two; something about the candles and the music had the effect of putting her into a sound sleep on my lap for the duration of the concert that year. The year after that, she and I had to sneak in and out of the Sanctuary at least three times during the one-hour program because she was at the peak of toilet-training, and it wasn’t going all that well.

Last night, there were other babies and toddlers whose parents were like I once was: far too preoccupied with keeping their small children quiet and calm to enjoy the program much at all. I knew how they felt, though: in those early years it seems so important to expose children to the special spectacle of live holiday music that you try hard to make it happen even when all evidence points to the fact that they probably just aren’t ready yet to sit through a program not specifically geared toward preschoolers.

But I’m at a different stage now. Tim opted not to come at all; at 12, his own interest in watching football overrules the novelty of being out at night, not to mention any priority on having time with Mom. Holly did come with me, but shortly after we sat down she moved to sit with four friends of hers. Suspecting that five 8-year-olds sharing a pew during a performance might not be such a good idea, I issued some stern words about behaving well; but I need not have worried; the girls all behaved beautifully, listening with rapt absorption except during the audience-participatory Jingle Bells, when they shook their maracas and bells along with all the other kids.

Some things haven’t changed; Holly still needed to leave halfway through to use the bathroom. But unlike during the memorable season of toilet-training, she slipped out on her own, after whispering to me where she was going; and upon returning to the Sanctuary three minutes later gave me a cheerful thumbs-up.

The experience reminded me that holiday significance doesn’t always appear where you most expect it. I would have expected to be most reminded of the passage of time when choosing our Christmas card picture, perhaps, or in selecting gifts for my kids, or maybe even in what we chose to do on Christmas Eve. (Do we still have to leave out beer and cookies for Santa? Really? Even though it’s just more dishes for me to wash?) I wouldn’t have expected being an audience member at a concert to have so much meaning to me. But the concert was wonderful as always, and meaningful as always. And I will try to remember in the future that music deserves a prominent role in our holiday traditions.

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