December 24, 2019

Let’s Use Holidays to Unite Us

Let’s Use Holidays to Unite Us

Over the past several weeks, I have been in Florida and Connecticut and have heard a great deal of holiday music.  Four facts are striking about the music:

  • Most of the music was composed and initially recorded before 1970. In fact, most was composed before 1960, even if great contemporary artists like Michael Buble, Josh Groban and Mariah Carey are covering holiday songs.  Our focus on celebrating holidays and developing new holiday themes for songs appears not to be as robust as it once was.
  • The themes of many holiday songs focus heavily on winter scenes, particularly snow. Bing Crosby’s recording of White Christmas, composed and introduced in the 1941 film Holiday Inn, is nostalgic for a magical winter scene.  Ironically, Irving Berlin composed this classic song because he had relocated his family to California and missed the cold winter weather back in New York City, where he grew up.  Today, the song is nostalgic for even people living in the Northeast or Midwest,  because fewer places in the continental United States actually have snowy winter weather at this time of the year.

I grew up in one of those places, Rochester, New York, and still have wonderful memories of playing in the snow around Christmas.  In talking at our annual Christmas party with a woman friend of ours who grew up in Rochester, we both concluded that we not only did not mind the cold, snowy weather that we experienced growing up, but that it seemed so appropriate at this time of the year.

  • There are many songs that link holidays with families and being home for the holidays. During World War II, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas was played all over the world to American troops, and, in some instances, for military personnel from other countries who missed being at home with their loved ones.  The saddest part of this attribute of holiday songs is that being “home” with loved ones is not as common as it once was.  There are many refugees, probably more than at any time since World War II, but even those of us who are grounded in particular communities find that our children and grandchildren now live far away from us.

My older son and his wife, who now live in Santa Barbara, joined us for a few days, but left on December 23 to celebrate Christmas and New Years with her mother and sisters in California.  Our younger son came home from San Francisco, and we expect that our daughter will relocate somewhere far away in the next few months.  This is not an aberrational situation.

Holiday songs remind us of what was once more common, but what we have lost.  When our family comes together, it is all too brief, but we accept both the brevity of their visits and their geographic separation most of the rest of the year, because our children go where opportunities present themselves.  Yet we are reminded, however briefly, of what our parents gave us and what we no longer have, a deep support system.

  • Rich Lowry of the New York Post made this comment in the newspaper’s December 25, 2019, Op-Ed page:

“The Christmas of this music is less explicitly religious and more markedly American, a holiday of snowy vistas, of hearth and home, of cheerful sounds and merrymaking, of Santa and his sleigh and of fond memories.”

This comment captures another insight about holiday music of an earlier era: it was optimistic in tone and focused on what we have in common, not what divides us.

Religious holiday celebrations are more complicated today because we are a more diverse country.  Different religions celebrate different holidays at different times of the year.  Even Christmas is celebrated on January 7 for those who would identify as Russian Orthodox, because they use a different calendar to mark Christ’s birth.

At their best, all religions celebrate optimism, unity, love, and faith.  At their best, all are welcoming and inclusive, while celebrating how they differ from other religions at the time of these holiday observances.  We should celebrate their best expressions of both their diversity and their desire to welcome and include outsiders.

In 1914, during the ugly, brutal trench warfare between the Germans and the British, the combatants stopped fighting and celebrated Christmas together.

If people who had declared war on one another could stop fighting and celebrate a common religious heritage for one day, we should be able to do better in a country that has no reason to be war within itself.

We should be using our imagination to exchange gifts that bring us together and make others feel better about themselves.