Crying for the Value of Christmas Music by
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For 30 years, Simon have started listening the Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. We have a collection of beautiful Christmas music, much of it choral, from the 1500s to now. This year Simon asked me what I wanted to hear first. I picked “An American Christmas” by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata. By the second track I was sobbing. I tried to tell him why.

I am crying for what isn't.

I haven’t been to church for years. My atheism developed over years, and I’m firm in it. (Leave me alone. Nothing you say will change my mind.) But I still like Christmas music. I still love much about the Episcopal Church. It’s a peaceful, beautiful denomination. The music is a large part of what I still love. But as an nonbeliever, I do other things with what was once church time.

Under the beauty of Christmas music is an emptiness that makes the stories, the traditions, the promises, the faith worth very little. Wars happen and prayers and faith don’t save lives. Prayers and faith don’t stop violence, hunger, sickness, poverty, abuse, lies, corruption, theft, inequality, fascism, and racism. They don’t stop the destruction of democracies. The state of the Christian church in the US is sad. People outside the church are annoyed by it or afraid of it. Many people inside the church are angry, divisive, critical, cruel, and hard. The caring, kind, inclusive Christians are figuring out what to do with and about them.

I was crying for what isn’t, for the work and feeling that have gone into the Christmas music for as long there has been Christmas music, and for the sad, mostly uselessness of it, because faith and the prayers don’t change or prevent problems. Entertaining, moving, beautifully performed music, I think of it as part of the Christian myth.

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Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!


  1. John Zussman says:

    I feel exactly the same way! As a choral singer, I love performing such beautiful, moving music—but the sentiments are hard to reconcile with my own nonbelief. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    I am Jewish, but have sung since I was a little girl. As a serious singer, I could sing the Mass in Latin at 12 (much to the amazement of my Catholic non-singing friends). In school choirs and Glee Clubs, we ALWAYS sang Christmas music, none of this PC nonsense about being sensitive to religious tolerance. I wasn’t offended. The music is lovely and I enjoyed it. I still sing in a serious chorus. The great music of the ages is mostly liturgical music. I love singing it. It isn’t about religion. It is feeling the depths of emotions in well-written music. I don’t have to believe in the Resurrection to feel the pain in the music when Jesus is on the cross.

    As a newcomer to a difficult school situation in 6th grade, the teachers asked me to sing a solo in the holiday assembly, so I could have a moment to shine. I still remember singing “Silver Bells”. It was a glorious moment. Thank you for sharing your musical associations with us.

  3. Patricia says:

    Yes! I’ve been trying for years to reconcile my non-belief with the incredible Christian musical tradition. As Betsy said, it’s the music that evokes such feeling, not the words, but there are times it is difficult to sing certain pieces. I have been hoping for some new spiritual but non-religious music, but they don’t write them like they used to!

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