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The old and the new

I grew up in a home where Christmas was a time of decoration and tradition - so much so, in fact, that to write about it now is to make it seem almost fictional. The long hall banister festooned with pine boughs and laced with holly; the mantelpiece set about with large pine cones and flanked with candleholders made of birch logs; the tree hung with baubles and tinsel - it was like something from a 19th-century novel. And always, on the music rack above the piano keyboard, stood the books of Christmas carols.

During my growing-up years there were two such songbooks. One was a large paperbound affair of indifferent quality, no doubt purchased from a local five-and-dime in the heat of the moment with a Christmas party breathing down the family's neck. Having the more secular songs, it doubled as a kind of coloring-book, with its heavily outlined drawings of reindeer and sleighs and Good King Wenceslaus. Over the years, they had been loosely crayoned in - so that, Christmas by Christmas, what began as a few quick strokes by passing children, came to have a permanent place in the visual lexicon of our family.

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The other book had been, in its day, a nicer volume: hard-bound, with a glossy cover and full-color pictures throughout of cherubic, wide-eyed, tousle-headed children singing among snow and angels. Even its notes were dressed for the occasion: for where its companion merely had the ordinary black ovals with straight stems attached, these were diamond-shaped, with stems arching in graceful curves and with long flags streaming from the eight notes. They were intended, I suppose, to give the appearance of medieval plainsong. I remember being greatly impressed at an early age by their aura of antiquity - though later, when I learned to play the piano, I found they were the very devil to read.

My earliest memories of Christmas include those books, and the after-dinner hours spent gathered around the piano singing carols to my mother's playing. My brother, ten years my senior, had a strong, true voice, and my sister a bright enthusiasm for the occasions. My father, too, was pleased to hear us sing, though he regularly professed his inability to carry a tune, which was more or less true. We stood somewhere in the background, he growling happily along, I on a chair peering over shoulders and chirping away.

And somehow the music and words stuck, so that now, without my having any memory of learning the classic and traditional carols, I seem to know them through and through. I suppose that's how most people learn carols: effortlessly , gradually, and over a period of years. Even the books become a part of us - though when they were purchased no one thought that they would become such permanent features in our families that no amount of persuasion could induce us to part with them. That, after all, is what's meant by tradition.

And Christmas is so much a time of traditions that it is hard to imagine it any other way. Yet only the other day I set myself thinking what would happen if, into this tradition, a brand new Christmas carol should appear.

It would come, no doubt, without the colored pictures and the worn spine, without the notes all diamond-shaped and the letters set in Old English type. There would be those, no doubt, who would ask, ''Can any good thing come out of the modern age?'' It would be, figuratively, born in a manger; and it might have rough going from a world more used to the drawing room.

So how, then, should it come, this carol? Joyously, I should think - not frivolously, to be sure, but not so coldly somber as to freeze out the great humanity of the season. Yet it should be humble, simple in its words and direct in its music, calling attention less to itself than to the event it celebrates. And above all it would have to come as a gift, a kind of unburdened and spontaneous outpouring of gratitude from the heart of its composers.

And as for its message? I don't know: anything, really, as long as it wrapped itself into the essence of Christmas with a love large enough to enfold a world bowed under its own forebodings. Yet it must be timeless. It would face, after all, long summers in the world's piano bench. Yet each December it would rise to life again, refreshing us with the profundity of its feeling.

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It would be, in other words, art, and art of the most expansive kind. And while it would come with no pictures, it would no doubt get them as time passed and children colored. It would be born in the shadowy Bethlehem of the spirit. But it would sing to us of the New Jerusalem, all in colors as bright as a child's imagination.

Could we ask for any more?

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