Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Christmas--the Agony and the Ecstasy

Central Park, Manhattan, NYC. Photo courtesy of

You may have noticed that I introduced a new contributor to Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) a few weeks ago, Jon Hendrickson. There are a few other writers I will be publishing here as well, so from now on you will see a byline accompanying each story—including my own, since it will now be necessary to distinguish one writer from the next. Anything you see with no byline is mine, prior to the arrival of these new writers and dating back to the beginning in 2008. The bylines will also help you to search the website for articles by each contributor by simply entering the writer’s name in the search field in the upper left-hand corner of the webpage—it’s the little box with the magnifying glass icon, which has apparently become the universal symbol for searching, though I must tell you that the last time I went shopping for a real magnifying glass (CD liner notes are often printed in a microscopic 4- or 5-pt. typeface) it took some detective work to find one. Said search box sits immediately to the right of Google Blogger’s little orange logo.

Okay, so now you know that there are going to be bylines on future articles, other people’s and my own.

The other thing to know is that we’re going to spread our wings a little bit. All the writers who contribute here have actual lives they are leading, which means they do other interesting things each day in addition to avidly listening to music. This is something jazz fans understand better than, say, beat box fans. Not that there’s anything wrong with beat box. If you see an article on wine tasting, or an interview with an eminent expert on the differences between South Carolina barbecue and North Carolina barbecue, don’t pass it up. Be assured, at some point in the article the writer will tie the barbecue in with some killer saxophone arpeggios he/she was listening to whilst sipping a glass of merlot or chewing the last bite of a barbecued rib. -- CLH

A Few Thoughts on Christmas

By Carl L. Hager

Christmastime is one of my favorite times of year. I’m like a lot of people that way. But like a lot of those people, if I am called upon to explain why, despite the pagan gluttony and the greedy commercialism that feeds it, my answer gets a little complicated. It’s similar to my answer in explanation of why I think George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, a thoroughly composed piece of music written by a Jew from New York with only a single clarinet glissando that offers any semblance of an opportunity to improvise, is one of the great jazz compositions of all time. But both are true.

Yes, Christmas is one of my favorite celebrations. I’m a fairly liberated and liberal person, in the sense that I am open to many views and beliefs, and enjoy the company of the people who hold them. That’s not a political statement, except in the broadest sense—fixated political partisanship is the precise opposite of liberalism (conservatism, too), and while “libertarianism” comes close to the original concept, even it is an ideology often used as a shield for a kind of dimwitted moralistic autism.

Christmas is a favorite time for me for the simple reason that it can be, and is, celebrated with equal enjoyment by all the above, without any sense of obligation to do anything else.

Christmas is undeniably a religious holiday. But it is unlike any other religious holiday in the world in its ecumenism. Christmas’s unpopularity among militant atheists is due to this fact only—the more people enjoy the holiday, the more miserable life becomes for the grinches. Even a religious agnostic or a person with a mild case of philosophical atheism can be witnessed laughing it up at a company Christmas party. Christmas is so ubiquitous and so widely celebrated around the world that it has become synonymous with everyday expressions of kindness and consideration, like brotherly love or charity. It is so powerful a force that it has brought about spontaneous truces between warring armies and navies, and even gets credit for much that it has really only inspired. That’s the nature of its simple doctrine of peace on earth and goodwill to men.

The true meaning of Christmas—a hotly debated topic every year in the Western world—produces thousands upon thousands of conclusions, but ultimately ends in a toast and a glass of eggnog liberally seasoned with brandy and good wishes, wherever the debate has occurred and regardless of the religious faiths of the debaters. It happens every year, from Boston to London to Cairo. Even in New York. Christians themselves come in many colors and guises, and very few agree completely on the actual significance of the holiday that originally began as a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, a festival so popular that the various factions of the Catholic church appropriated it as the logical time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But just like any other birthday party, EVERYBODY was and is invited, anyone who promises to behave. God bless us, everyone, as the wise young Tiny Tim advised.

When I was growing up, my two best friends in the neighborhood were Jews. Both attended Friday night services at the synagogue, and I often went with one or the other of them. Both also attended Hebrew school in preparation for their bar mitzvahs. I didn’t attend these classes, feeling quite unprepared to be preparing for an exclusively Jewish manhood, even though the rabbi was a heroic example. My parents were the most religiously tolerant people I’ve ever known, and their response to all this was to get me a sports coat and tie so that I could dress right for these occasions. Both had been raised as standard-issue North American Protestants, but both also thought religious persecution was what the original Plymouth colonists had braved the icy Atlantic waters in tiny boats to escape, and that religious freedom is what they had come this far expecting to find. My parents didn’t talk it, they believed it. So when I was 12 years old, I was a Protestant-Jew. But the point salient to this discussion is that both of my Jewish neighborhood friends celebrated Christmas each year. Not in the same way I did—with a houseful of Swedish Lutherans in south Minneapolis, where my father’s parents and all the extended family gathered each Christmas Eve beneath three feet of snow—but in their own individual manners. Because as anyone paying attention knows by now, Christmas means something different to whoever is celebrating it. Like jazz is to music (the worn-out question, “What is Jazz?” is best answered with “What isn’t Jazz?”), in addition to being a religious holiday, Christmas is the most all-inclusive, all-welcoming, I-came-to-play holiday of the year.

Nearly every Jew I’ve known since I was young celebrates Christmas. They celebrate Chanukah, of course, but on Christmas they celebrate forgiveness for the same sins they are lamenting—as does every Mormon, every Scientologist, every Baptist and every Pentacostalist. Contrary to the iconic Red Ryder-obsessed writer’s rendition of the holiday in A Christmas Story, even many American Buddhists celebrate Christmas. Why do you think they keep their wonton soup ready for the diasporic Christmas revelers? But the important point is that participation in the celebration isn’t mandatory. You are not fined or shot or beheaded for not celebrating it. Christmas is a day off from the madness of the world. It’s a day to love one another despite all the reasons not to.

One of my dearest friends is, at once, the least religious and most spiritual person I know. For years he did nothing out of the ordinary on Christmas, aside from enjoying a long weekend and a winter’s nap. Then one day, one of his daughters had a child. Next thing you know, his other daughter had a child. Christmas became a holiday for him. It was about other people all along.

What makes me think of him is that I go through the same emotional curve myself, every year. The agony and the ecstasy. The personal evolution from non-believer to believer, non-celebrator to celebrator. Just about this time each December, some asshole in Washington, D.C., decides to makes his or her ego more important than letting every congressman and White House official go home and cool off for a few days. Or some psychopath in Pakistan gives a few of his psychopath friends some pills and convinces them that killing schoolchildren will bring them closer to… (fill in the blank). Every year, I know I need to celebrate Christmas more than I need anything else on earth. And every year I go through the same brutalizing experience of convincing myself that I need it, deserve it, can afford it, etc.

Well, I made it all the way through again this year. To those of you who need a reason to enjoy Christmas, let me suggest an approach illustrated by Woody Allen, a jazz clarinetist and jazz fan, in his film Manhattan:   

1 comment:

Jon Hendrickson said...

As an incompletely recovering Swedish Virgo, I am compelled to point out that you haven't quite completely "gotten through" Christmas yet, but I trust and hope you will find yourself next week as glad of your having written this piece as I was for having (finally!) read it. Merry Christmas!