Thursday, December 15, 2016

Minor Chords for Christmas

This December has felt extraordinarily un-Christmasy.

I grew up loving Christmas, with a deep abiding faith and wonder. As I am no longer a person of faith it makes the holiday season nostalgic in the Mad Men way:

This nostalgia is potent for me, having returned to just outside of the city where I grew up. Every morning I step outside and see my childhood home across the Bay. At sunset the Western sky casts a shadow that fades to the universal intrigue of city lights.

The view from my apartment.

Christmas is typically an experience that's nostalgic for one's childhood - and for family. For me, the familial aspect has never dominated my feelings. Even when I was young Christmas was about faith. And history.

For I went to school in this building:

And, as a cathedral is designed to do, it awed me. The structure had something medieval that overwhelmed me a child. Those tapestries pictured are original Flemish and Belgian works of art from the Middle Ages. The exterior is based on Notre Dame.

My childhood faith was deeply historical for me, and the legacy of Christendom was the source of much of the appeal and mystery.

There is a tradition, with Christmas, that goes back to the earliest Christmas music we have, from the beginning, of minor chords, and a sorrowful aspect. Those Christmas songs and hymns that are triumphant and celebratory miss the point - the empathy - of the story. Jesus' birth must strike one as tragic - for we know the suffering that must befall him. Indeed, it is a selfish, on-the-knees, weeping sort of ecstasy that would be thankful for the birth of Jesus, seeing Jesus as the alleviation of sins. There is a servile, cringing, component to that rendering.

But the empathetic version, the young man who must suffer and die - whose fate we know through the story - is tragic at birth in the same fashion of the Greek Cassandra. Knowing the future makes the present painful to bear.

So, as I gaze across the Bay to the city of my home, and think, as I have so often done as an adult, how lucky my childhood was - how fortunate those of us who grew up in that privileged decade really were - and how innocent, more so perhaps than any others - I consider the melancholic Christmas songs, ranging across centuries, written and sung by those who understood the essential tragedy of life, the sorrow of our own births foretelling the hardships and sacrifices we all must bear.

Here, then, are five of those minor chord songs that, to me, mean Christmas:

Noel Nouvelet - 15th century

What Child Is This / Greensleeves - 1865

O Come O Come Emmanuel - 1861

The Angel Gabriel - Trad. Basque

Past Thee O'Clock - Trad. English, adapted 1924

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