The wonderful Christmas season is also a wonderful music season. Simple songs of joy, happiness, innocence and, yes, holiness will be our musical fare for the next several weeks. Even our post-Christian culture can’t help itself in musically celebrating the coming of Jesus as the Messiah.
However, we who are Christians can be conflicted. Should we enjoy and participate in the secular songs of the season? After all, most of them only tangentially, if at all, mention the real reason for the season. Aren’t we Christians better served by staying with the classic hymns and anthems that have served the Church for centuries? I answer we should sing both the Temple songs and the life songs with enthusiasm.
In the Biblical Songbook the Apostle Paul gives us stern instructions in Galatians 2 when he confronts Peter. Peter and his group were trying to drag Paul and Barnabas back to living under the Jewish law with its restrictions, rules and conventions. Paul would have none of that. He said the grace of Jesus frees us from cultural and ceremonial conformity and slavery. If Paul had not stood fast, we Christians would be living in a much more restrictive religious culture.
Now, applying Paul’s message of graceful liberation to music appreciation, the happy secular tunes of Christmas coming out of the Great American Songbook can lift our spirits and help us celebrate, with our American culture, the wonder and joy of the coming of the incarnate Son of God. So I will be looking at several secular Christmas songs over the next month with a view that we Christians should enjoy them for the momentary pleasure and rosy nostalgia that they can bring to our lives. If we can do this, then we can thank our Savior for these daffy December ditties.
As we begin our look at American Songbook Christmas songs we begin with the most popular Christmas song in history – Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” In fact, it is the most popular song in history! Written in l942, in the early dark days of World War 2 for the Crosby/Astaire movie Holiday Inn, the song is “corny and simple” admitted the composer. 1942 was the first Christmas that American troops spent away from home and the nostalgic sentiments in the song struck a responsive chord that was truly heard around the world, because wherever there was an American soldier the song was played.
(Song: “White Christmas” sung by Bing Crosby)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJSUT8Inl14
“White Christmas” is singable, understandable and void of all the theological questions that surround Christmas. As one music scholar has stated, “A Christian, a heathen or an atheist could readily agree with the sentiments of ‘White Christmas.’” For what its worth, National Public Radio claims that Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” is the 2nd most historically significant song of the 20th century, behind only Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.” No accurate record of sales are available, but industry experts estimate that the song has sold over 100 millions copies, in all forms, since 1942 making it the highest selling song in history.
Irving Berlin was not a religious man so the sentiments in the song are not overtly religious. However, the lyrics are covertly religious for those with eyes to see and ears to hear of God’s goodness. Therein lies the significance of this song for the Christian believer. God’s common grace is enunciated in the “simple” words and music of this song.
It is good to wish that people have a holiday which is “merry and bright” and be able to enjoy God’s good gifts of snow, sleigh bells and companionship. So sing “White Christmas” this year with the joy of theological understanding.
With that in mind, Merry Christmas and may your Advent season “be merry and bright.”
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”