|I hear the Bells on Christmas Day|
I wrote this entry before last friday's horrific events. As a writer I remain frozen in thought with 1/2 dozen false starts littering my drafts. I have decided to go ahead with this because these sad times reflect what I was trying to say in the piece, so much of the Christmas music we love is born out of darkness to give us hope.
Along with decorating the tree and reading a little Charles Dickens, Christmas Carols are one of my favorite things about the holidays. Maybe its because Christmas songs, like treasured tree ornaments and Tiny Tim blessing us all everyone, are about the best and purest ideals of the holidays, even when the songs themselves come out of the worst of times. Maybe especially then.
Recently I was in the car with my daughter when John Lennon's Happy Christmas (War is Over) came on the radio, and the 13 yr old mentioned she really liked that song, and indeed it caused her to swipe my Lennon CD's and listen to more. I mentioned that I always found it a melancholy song, both because of the time it was written (during the Vietnam war) and because John Lennon had died so close to Christmas, and I heard the song so many times that year. There is a wistfulness to the children's choir singing "War is over, if you want it" and added sadness in the thought that it is more than 40 years and we are still waiting.
There are several nice versions of this but not surprisingly, I prefer the original.
When I started thinking about this post I realized that Happy Christmas isnt the only favorite of mine that hails from war time. One of the best selling songs of all time, Bing Crosby's recording of White Christmas dates to World War II,originally it was just one of many songs in the film Holiday Inn, but it took off that winter as it reminded many of the Christmas traditions they left behind. Bing does it best, accept no substitutes.
Also coming out of the war, though featured in a nostalgic film about an earlier time, is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, from Meet Me in St Louis. This was always a favorite song of mine, but it grows on me as I get older and am seperated one way or another from so many people who I would like to spend Christmas with. I like the way Judy Garland sang it in the movie, but check out this version, starring John Denver and Rowlf the Dog from The Muppet Show.
Another favorite was born out of a differant kind of war. Most peIople today don't realize that Do You Hear What I Hear was inspired by the Cuban Missle Crisis of 1962, which brought this planet closer than it has ever been to a nuclear war. It takes a lamb, and a child, and a king to let everyone know the world needs peace. This was another song that Bing Crosby did one of the first recordings of, and I think its still one of the best.
But my very favorite song born of war goes back to a very dark time indeed. In 1863 the great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was greatly disturbed by the ongoing Civil War, which he had sons fighting in, and which had not been going well for the North. It inspired him to write a poem he called Christmas 1863, but which is now better known by its opening words "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." He recounts the sadness of a wartime that mocks the message of "Peace on Earth good will to men" before consoling himself with the hope that Good and Right and Peace would be restored in the end. I dont think anyone has ever set down so clearly the dichotomy of celebrating Christmas in the midst of war. The poem has been set to several differant melodies, here is one of my favorite versions with Harry Belafonte
When I was a kid the first record album I ever owned was by Gene Autry. I played it all the time in season and out, since it was the only one I had. 2 songs stuck with me, the classic Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (I was kind of a misfit, and bullied a bit too, so we understood each other) and Here Comes Santa Claus (the 7 yr old Misfit me also appreciatated that "Santa Claus knows we're all God's children, that makes everything right.")
Another song I really liked as a kid was The Little Drummer Boy. There are a lot of great versions but Bing Crosby (Him again?) and David Bowie (yes really, Bowie) have them all beat.
I have gone on, but please be patient for one more favorite. Most people don't know this song, but it was recorded for John Denver and the Muppets, A Christmas Together. It's called The Christmas Wish and features the one and only Kermit the Frog. It may be my very favorite Christmas song. What I love about this song (besides Kermit) is its universiality: even if you arent celebrating Christmas, "If you believe in love, that will be more than enough for you to come and celebrate with me." Even if you never saw the Christmas star "I know there is a light, I have felt it burning bright, and I have seen it shining from afar". and then Kermit wishes us what every one wants at the holidays, peace of mind and love throughout the year.
And in case we dont chat again this month, I wish you all the same.