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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2008/12/22
by Pat Buzby


It is December. My muscles are aching because winter decided not to wait to hit Chicago this year, and my neighbor who usually shovels the walk was out the other day. And we are in the middle of the season of festivity and vacations, which comes to an end and then leaves you with three months of nothing but winter.
Like most people over the age of 10, I have mixed feelings about Christmas. And, especially, Christmas music. In recent years I have had very little to do with television or malls, and this time of year makes me especially glad about that.
Each year brings its instance of being depressed, or just annoyed, by Christmas music. This year I may have gotten away with only a minor incident, but there was one nonetheless I was in a store and got to hear the entire clever key-changing Bela Fleck arrangement of Twelve Days Of Christmas. A few months ago I had listened to a couple Flecktones CDs to see if I could find something to like there. If they gained any ground with me then, they went down a notch that day at the store.
A few years back I had a one-day job where I was at an office with a Christmas easy-listening station playing. It could have been the incident that won the all-time prize for holiday annoyance, but it didnt work out that way. The station evidently didnt want to repeat material, yet by being forced to stick to material in the holiday category, it became more diverse than most secular easy-listening stations Ive heard. And some of the artists seemed to be having more fun when dealing with the December market than they normally do when appeasing the wider world.
Fortunately, I like many of the Christmas standards. Given that there have been many centuries to weed out the inferior efforts, the ones that have lasted do rather well at evoking calm and light amid the coldness. It occurred to me this year that the holiday repertoire is to the wider public what the canon of standards is to jazz musicians, or what the Dead or Phish covers selections are to jamband fans. Some songs earned their position in the canon, while others benefited from a lucky break or two, but theyre in there, and we deal with them once a month each year.
And, as with those other groups of songs, ones relationship with them can change a lot over the years. In the case of Christmas music, I went from playing drums in stage band arrangements in high school, to not having any involvement with it in post-college years, to participating in choirs lately.
As with the standards or the cover tunes, there is lots of info to discover if you care to delve into it. Three years ago, I discovered that without having the words in front of me, I didnt know much more than a line or two of Angels We Have Heard On High. Two years ago, the factoid that emerged was a choirmasters insistence on pronouncing it gloria een excelsis deo rather than in. I believe it was last year that the mini-scandal about ransom captive Israel came to my attention. And this year we are with a new choirmaster, who pointed out that Handels Messiah, contrary to popular belief (and in this case I had been stuck with popular belief) was not intended to be performed at Christmas.
In a couple weeks, the time of vacations and parties will be done. Then we can return to the business of waiting for warm weather to come and for 2009 to begin defining itself.

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