On Thursday it was the school choir accompanied by synthesizer performing eleven “holiday” songs, not one of which employed the word “Christmas.” The playlist was dominated by relentlessly up-tempo numbers, “My Favorite Things” among them, though not the Coltrane arrangement. On Friday, twenty band members – clarinets, trumpets, flutes, trombone – filled the halls with similarly Christmas-free “holiday” songs, though they worked in “Jingle Bells.” Charles Lamb, that happy writer, would have been appalled. In “A Few Words on Christmas,” an essay he published in The London Magazine in December 1822, Lamb writes:
“One mark and sign of Christmas is the music; rude enough, indeed, but generally gay, and speaking eloquently of the season.”
Eloquence is the last thing on the minds of Christmas censors. The phrase "safe as milk" comes to mind, thin fat-free stuff with little value as sustenance. One need not number among the faithful to feel gypped. The censors not only deny us “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” they substitute deracinated inspiration, offending only those who love music and Christmas.
The musical news grew even grimmer Friday when my oldest son told me of Captain Beefheart’s death at age sixty-nine. I remember listening to Trout Mask Replica for the first time, in 1969, when a high-school friend played it on the stereo in his bedroom. This was weirdness I could understand. Here’s a favorite Beefheart lyric, from “Steal Softly Thru Snow,” from that album:
“Steal softly thru sunshine,
Steal softly thru snow.
The wild goose flies from winter,
Breaks my heart that I can’t go.”
Imagine a Christmas celebration on which Lamb and Beefheart collaborated. In Lamb’s words:
"Oh! merry piping time of Christmas! Never let us permit thee to degenerate into distant courtesies and formal salutations. But let us shake our friends and familiars by the hand, as our fathers and their fathers did. Let them all come around us, and let us count how many the year has added to our circle. Let us enjoy the present, and laugh at the past. Let us tell old stories and invent new ones--innocent always, and ingenious if we can. Let us not meet to abuse the world, but to make it better by our individual example. Let us be patriots, but not men of party. Let us look of the time--cheerful and generous, and endeavour to make others as generous and cheerful as ourselves.”