time to change the way we view music and the arts

“C” is for Christmas and composing

Christmas tree wallpaper

If someone comes to your door, starts singing and it happens to be December 25th,
does it get called a Christmas carol?
(Cit. ScenicReflections.com)

During the past six days, leading up to the next six days, two different discussions from two very different outlets brought up topics that could be mutually joined by including Christmas in conversation. One discussion was more generalized and presented by the recently rescued, Australian classical music magazine, Limelight, asking the value of sacred music in a secular age. The other was a brief, televised interview segment presented by Varney & Co., fleshing out one (already very successful) woman and her decision to change careers –with the new direction being a route to success via the writing and recording of Christmas music. That woman is Elizabeth Chan and her current Christmas “startup” endeavor is with the album “Everyday Holidays.”

Returning to the article from Limelight and answering their question directly, I do believe sacred music still has value in today’s secular society. Additionally, I would venture to question why things still become somewhat hesitant among the general population, should someone suggest that sacred music could gain a more prominent spot of appreciation amidst every other kind of music – especially when it comes to music in the context of a celebration like Christmas.


Sacred music’s value in the world –practical, religious, emotional and artistic– could grow and its existence could be framed by a two-way door, rather than what often feels like a one-way door for the sacred to be sucked out but the commercial to be brought in.

Let’s elaborate on this:
Ms. Chan, who is extremely well versed in the business world, a strong marketer and holds a well of useful experience with complex professional relations after her time with Condé Naste, expresses the following sentiments around what “Christmas classic” means to her:

I started my label like any startup. I had a passion for this product –in my case it was Christmas music– and I went after it.”

Interestingly, even though Chan sees enough leeway for potential in Christmas music that she wants to base a whole career off of it, when asked if she was “in this [project] for money or to make a mark,” Chan not only stated that with this kind of music, most songs won’t make the successful cut, but, she also approached them from a very finance-focused angle:

I feel like, for Christmas music, you’re not going to have that big win, big hit, like most music songs or uh, singles do. Christmas songs are annuties and they really become classics over time.”

If Chan’s interview is watched through a business and marketing lens, it reveals timeless insight on how to approach this “product” she wants to explore. Beyond looking through this particular lens though, isn’t there something odd about the fact that the more sacred half of such music remains marginalized to the point of needing to question and evaluate its value in modern society?

(Side note: The tracks on Chan’s album are indeed built on solid hooks with catchy songwriting and the album’s ‘production with a polish finish,’ are nothing at which to shake a stick. This isn’t about calling the record itself a “bad” work and I give kudos to Chan for going after a personal passion.) 

Several individuals, coming from different faiths and or varying degrees of religious devotion/lack thereof, chimed in on Limelight’s query and the range of responses makes it clear that sacred music can be appreciated for a variety of reasons; harking back to a song’s religious intents or not. A few excerpts below:

“…It is my belief that every human being can be touched by beauty. A non- believer, if touched by beauty, can be led to investigate where music and words lead us and can come to faith, knowledge and harmony. My personal faith deepens my musical experience because it leads me to find the perspective in which my whole life is led, and to see the beauty of music and the experience that goes beyond words.”

-Dennis Hart: Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne

“…At the more extreme end of the religious spectrum, music that has been written with a view to celebrate another divinity though [can be] a problem for us because it’s participating in someone else’s worship. Much of the music we listen to was written for our shared God and many of the people who were writing it were under the patronage of clergymen despite being profound atheists and hedonists themselves…” 

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence: Chief Minister of Sydney’s Great Synagogue

“The purpose of sacred music is to give delight and create drama. You don’t have to believe in Valhalla to be moved by the Ring. You don’t have to believe in Jesus to be equally moved by the St Matthew Passion. I think the Crucifixion is the greatest story ever told, but it is a story, and it is not an accident that it has been the subject of some of the great art of the Western world. What gives it its power is the genius of artists to connect it with human emotions.”

David Marr: Author and social commentator

Unless a person’s aversion to sacred material comes from aspects like specific tempos, instrumentation or arrangements, or something relating to the functional application of the music itself, (e.g. music reserved for specific ceremonies not to be altered or paraded in non-relevant contexts) there are definitely individuals who look past societal avoidance of the sacred genre’s full colors, so, it would make sense that Christmas songs would be able to follow suit, one would think.

No one likes micro-analyzing semantics but if one calls it Christmas music, that designation has sacred origins. Christmas music is supposed to be rooted in connection to celebrating what is undeniably a crucial Christian holiday at its core. If the argument against that point is that, “Well, Christmas is celebrated by many people who fall along all levels of the “I am religious” spectrum; including non-religious folk, who still wish to acknowledge and celebrate universal positive values like love, peace and goodwill toward men, then what’s to stop more people, religious or not, from giving the same response when an appreciation or affinity for writing music of a more overtly sacred nature comes up? Essentially, depending on the words, imagery and people referenced in a Christmas song one might write, it can definitely take on a more or less intense, but still sacred, face.
Shifting back to the beginning of Chan’s interview for a moment, the question of, “What was Christmas about [your single “FA LA LA”] though? It’s all, “Happy holidays”?” Chan explains that she, “really wanted to pen a song that really spoke to how we all share the way that we celebrate holidays with family and friends.”
The above response prompts me to offer this thought that could go to both Ms. Chan and Limelight for future consideration:
What about making sacred Christmas music that gains more acknowledgement and new life in society as a type of hybrid but still stays true to itself? 

There are plenty of Christmas carols* that irrefutably represent, and call attention to, sacred people, places and events but have become such staples in everyday space outside of churches and Christian services, that they are also accepted as commercial. Thusly, these songs are transformed on some level; coming to be regarded in a more secular, and subsequently more universal, way.
*(Carol as defined by W.W. Norton in the History of Western Music, 8th Edition: English song, usually on a religious subject, with several stanzas and a BURDEN, or REFRAIN. From the fifteenth century on, most carols are POLYPHONIC.)
In the case of Ms. Chan’s create-a-classic aspirations, there is no reason a driven person such as herself could not eventually pen a new record that could both hit upon the marketing observations she mentions in her interview and remain firmly in a religious framework, all while still coming away with the ability to earn a lasting place among Christmas season repertoire for enjoyment in a secular environment. One great example of a song that manages this is Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene’s, “Mary Did You Know?”, first released in 1992, eventually to be covered and released by popularly recognized artists like Clay Aiken and CeeLo Green.

If an atheist walks into a church and sits in a pew, am I going to ask them why they walked in the front door? No. If a newly composed Christmas song describes religious elements of, well, Christmas, am I going to ask how religious you are, or aren’t, if you listen to and enjoy it? No.
So, regardless of Elizabeth Chan’s level of religious devotion, perhaps she is onto something in her quest and enthusiasm for writing within this niche of music. Should it be her and or others going forward, maybe more songwriters will eventually try their hand at crafting and marketing Christmas compositions but with less of a compulsion to stay within the societally created set of sacred/secular musical boundaries and the stereotypes personal appeal of either tends to generate. Then a revisitation to the question of, “What’s the value of sacred music in a secular age?” would really be interesting…

6 Responses to ““C” is for Christmas and composing”

  1. Ali Shakeri

    Hey Kira,

    I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to read an article about Christmas music today (despite it being the holiday season), but this caught my eye.

    To answer your question “What’s the value of sacred music in a secular age?” I’d say that sacred music provides the same value as secular music: as a force that provides emotional enjoyment and community-building. I think that despite the fact that certain songs have religious connotations (especially during the holiday season), people still listen to them because they make them feel wonderful and bring up feelings of nostalgia.

    Why do people who aren’t Christian like listening to “The Little Drummer Boy”? It’s because the song invokes feelings of peace and most importantly, nostalgia. Nostalgia is what makes Christmas songs, and even “sacred music,” important in a secular age. Those songs that we hear during rare-family gatherings have meanings attributed to them that a lot of secular songs don’t, because they are not played at those gatherings. (Festivals are a great opportunity for secular songs to develop attachments at non-family gatherings though).

    I’m curious to see if she makes a successful Christmas song though!

    Thanks for the interesting piece!

    -Ali

    Reply
    • Kira

      Thank *you* Ali, for sharing your thoughts on the subject!

      Bringing up the general aspect of nostalgia as another potential reason for why people of different or non-religious backgrounds can still enjoy hearing a variety of such songs…that’s a great point that wasn’t mentioned by myself or the people quoted by Limelight Magazine.

      (You should check out their piece that I linked at the beginning and give all the different the quotes a read!)

      You added something to this topic and made me stop and think as well -exactly what all this writing and questioning is here for: mutual discussion and insight. :)

      Cheers!

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth Chan

    I loved this post. Thank you for watching the segment with Varney. I wanted to say that was raised Catholic and out of my 300+ songs, many are secular. However, I was also raised a New Yorker, where many of my peers celebrate other holidays. My favorite song is “A Christmas Song,” which was most recently covered by a local high school. I was surprised when they switched the word “holy” to “special.” I welcomed it, and this is not an indictment of the arrangement – but a highlighting of the sensitivities. After the Varney segment, Stuart asked me if I was Christian. When I told him I was, he said “Why didn’t you mention?” I said back, “You didn’t ask me!” :)
    The goal to achieve a longstanding legacy will outlast any dollar I can make on my endeavors. So I don’t really focus on the latter, I always focus on the passion.

    Reply
    • Kira

      Hi Elizabeth, thanks so much for reading my post and giving back your two cents here. I’m happy to know you got something out of what I had to say.

      It’s nice to hear a bit of extra insight as to how you view the balancing of “sensitivities” and “political correctness.” Hearing that you are indeed focused on the emotional gratification of being a songwriter, I’m not surprised in the least that you are so flexible and seeing the positives in the simple act of someone hearing or performing your work.

      Not sure how the interview might have flowed differently if your Catholicism has been brought up, 😉 but, finding out now simply reveals your first hand understanding of Christmas’s theological core, which gives way for more perspective and empathy from the listener’s side because of the transparency from your side.

      A healthy amount of transparency never hurts musicians and is probably all the more useful for you, considering the niche in which you’ve placed yourself as a songwriter.

      A very Merry Christmas to you and best wishes as you continue your pursuits!

      Reply
  3. James Edward Skidmore

    Music is always of value, secular or not it provides us with insight as well as a way to communicate where words or emotion cannot be properly expressed. In the case of Christmas music and the passion of Ms.Chan. Her endeavor will find, although Christmas is the theme, That the genre is more about community and our ability to connect. When music and the fan feed off one another, we build a bond where art is not just a binding interaction, but one that goes beyond the boundaries of our perceived limitations. There is always room for imagination even if our secular world has us revisit our thoughts on religion, god and its impact on our existence. Evolution is mandatory, it pushes us forward. If music evolves within a genre or a deviation from the norm, it is important that there is momentum and that there is a force of creativity.

    James Skidmore
    http://www.facebook.com/weepingicon

    Reply
  4. James Edward Skidmore

    P.S. Sacred music also offers a connection to our past and a way to communicate with our ancestors. When we give respect to our past, we ensure hope for our future and what is more valuable than hope in an age where science rules the roost.
    The soul too must be fed. Intellectuals must offer a spiritual alternative to religion. The kind of expansion of consciousness and refinement of perception that are the gifts of the arts.
    Author Unknown.

    James Skidmore
    http://www.facebook.com/weepingicon

    Reply

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