Monday, December 21, 2009

Oh Silent Night: An Agnostic Carroll. Part 1.

While driving home from finishing up my holiday shopping this evening, I reluctantly allowed myself to leave the radio on “the folk show” on NHPR. Not that this would usually be reluctant... but they were playing Christmas music.

Now, I don’t think I’m exactly your run-of-the-mill anti-social bah-humbug type. I tend to think that my usual objection to consciously subjecting myself to holiday tunes is a bit more nuanced and complicated than that, for a few reasons. First, (and probably most pressingly), until my “real” career starts actually paying me, I wait tables. Which means that I’m subjected to the most banal and commercialized version of consumer Christmas music on a daily basis, starting the moment the restaurant opens on Black Friday, straight up until new years. Second, I’m an agnostic, and I don’t exactly believe in the traditionally-assumed benefits of the American style of capitalist consumerism... which puts me in a bit of a dicey situation when it comes to holidays that are based on nothing but a combination of religion and material-consumption. Third, I don’t have, like, want, or understand children. Not to mention, I’m a “recovered Catholic” (about 11 years of parochial education under my belt), raised in a house where, after Thanksgiving, all music HAD to be season-specific. Call it jingle-bell-burn-out. Call it jaded cultural nihilism. Call it whatever you want.

But, now... Christmas is less than a week a way, I have just finished my shopping, in one form or another I still “celebrate” the holiday (for one reason or another that I’d have a pretty hard time trying to rationalize), snow is on the ground... yet I don’t feel terribly “festive,” though for some reason I feel like I should. God knows, I’ve spent enough money that it seems like I SHOULD find a reason to feel “in the spirit” to make it all worth while, right? So... when I get back in my car and, over the course of time I was in the store, public-radio has transitioned from news to Christmas music that falls on the “classier” (or “less-tacky”?) end of the spectrum, this seems to be an adequate compromise between my internal opposites that are annually active during this season.

Problem is... it’s been a long time since I’ve actually LISTENED to Christmas music. I mean, actually paid attention to it.

The last few years, when I was wrapping gifts, or doing something else that required at least the facsimile of festivity, I had a few standby albums that FELT warm and festive, but had enough complications to make their holiday sentiments less-than-deadpan, and thus more comfortable for me. Miles Davis- Kind of Blue. This one’s easy. It’s not even a Christmas record. But it just FEELS like the perfect record for a cold, comfortable night by the fire. No internal compromise required. Jethro Tull- A Christmas Album. I think most of this band is pagan, and nearly all of these tunes have the smirk of such an irony shining through them. Yet there’s a Celtic warmth to the record that makes it somehow appropriately “Christmasy.” Other than that... The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole... just because I truly enjoy torch-jazz, no matter what season it happens to be.

None of these, however, allows me the opportunity of regularly observing what Christmas music is traditionally “supposed” to be.

And the Frosty’s and Rudolph’s in the restaurants only expressed the consumer end of the equation.

( be continued...)


Brady @ NHPR said...

Neat post Bernard! It'd be interesting to put together a playlist of music that's, like you described, "seasonal" without really being "Christmas" or "holiday" music.

Didn't know if you saw it already, but our show Word of Mouth did an interview with Harvard's Humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein, about some of the issues you bring up in the post. It's at if you'd like to take a look.

Brady at NHPR

Bernard P. Provencher LeVautour said...

Thanks Brady! A playlist like that would be EXCELLENT. I'd LOVE to see a collected list of what works for others in that regard.

And I will definitely check out the interview with Epstein. Thanks!