Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holiday music

My parents weren't religious. I suppose they could be described as agnostic Jews. They did the whole Christmas tree thing with my older sisters, but by the time my younger sister and I were born, they had decided this was hypocritical and had begun some basic Jewish observances to at least connect us with our cultural heritage. These included my mother lighting candles and singing blessings over grape juice, candles, and homemade bread on Friday nights before dinner; making Hamentaschen (small triangular pastries filled with raisins and poppyseeds) at Purim; and lighting a menorah and exchanging presents during the eight nights of Chanukah.

However, for most of my life, I have sung or played in some sort of Christmas program every year. I always felt sort of torn about it. On the one hand, I loved all the Christmas carols (most of which are based on old English folk tunes) and even the tacky holiday songs like "Little Drummer Boy" and "White Christmas" and "Silver Bells." On the other hand, my parents obviously did not feel comfortable with all of this religion-related stuff, though they never said I shouldn't do it.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher decided for some reason that I should sing "The Chanukah Song" as a solo on the Christmas concert. I don't remember being nervous or afraid; I just stood there in front of the glee club holding a paper menorah and singing:

Chanukah, Oh Chanukah, come light the Menorah
Let's have a party; we'll all dance the hora
Gather round the table, we'll all have a treat
Sivivonim to play with, livivot to eat.

And while we are playing
The candles are burning low,
One for each night, they shed a sweet light
To remind us of days long ago.
One for each night, they shed a sweet light
To remind us of days long ago.
One of the local TV stations actually recorded this and broadcast it on the evening news. The other kids were delighted, I'm sure.

Once I started playing in instrumental groups, I was involved with some sort of Christmas concert -- usually more than one, and sometimes a large number of them -- every year. During college and beyond, I was generally paid.

Over the past decade, I have done fewer and fewer of these. This year, the only holiday-related music I played was for the English and Scandinavian dances I've described in previous posts (though really, the only specifically Christmas-y number we played was "Santa Lucia" at the Scan dance, which usually accompanies a young girl walking around the room with candles on her head distributing saffron buns, but this year the candle-wearer was a small adult from the band because we couldn't find a willing child). I didn't even play in a "Messiah." We did go over to the in-laws for Christmas dinner, and I played the piano a little bit, but I don 't think slaughtered Bach and crippled Gershwin counts, exactly.

All of these winter holiday festivals are just a way to brighten the shortest, darkest, and often coldest days of the year, and the music helps. So not being involved in anything makes me a little sad because no matter what my personal beliefs, I have always derived some pleasure from participating in such a benign and peaceful traditional activity.

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