A number of years ago, letters went back and forth on the pages of the local paper about this relatively new thing (since we were kids) in our schools called the “Winter Concert,” which, in an attempt to not offend anyone, seemed to pointedly ignore the Christmas elephant in the room. People weighed in on this from all sides. Some people expressed themselves well, and others didn’t. Some made us think a little bit, while others made us cringe. I hope that what I have to say here is one of those things that makes you think.
What I miss, from my high school years back in the early 70s, are the annual mixed-program Christmas concerts, and the key here is that they were mixed-program. Sure, they included a lot of religious Christmas music, much of which even I, as an Episcopal Church choirboy from 5th grade, had never heard before, but they also included a lot of secular seasonal stuff. Yes, there was the opening procession of all the choirs on the old French carol At Solemn Midnight and the coveted senior solo on Oh Holy Night, but there was also Sleigh Ride, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, and other secular seasonal favorites.
Unfortunately, a mixed program like this probably wouldn’t work in a public school anymore because some people would say that the proper place for the religious music is in a church. However, the secular music wouldn’t be welcome as part of a church program either. I don’t just want a church hymn-sing and I don’t just want to hear songs like Jingle Bells, that don’t even mention Christmas at all, in an attempt to offend no one. I want both sacred and secular holiday season music, and it seems that the only solution is for someone to form a “community chorus” that would allow us to hear our young people do a mixed-program Christmas concert at a “neutral” venue.
The obvious exception here is college choirs. For six years I was a member of the Hendricks Chapel Choir at Syracuse University, and despite our being the Chapel choir, which sang at the regular Sunday chapel services, we were also a traveling and performing choir for SU, which meant that we also learned secular works to round out our concert program. I’m sure that many other college choirs do this same mix with no concerns. But I guess things are different by the time you get to college.
And what of those people who aren’t Christians and don’t celebrate Christmas? Recent surveys have shown that despite our increasing diversity, a huge majority of people celebrate Christmas in one form or another. Things may look a little different in DeWitt than in Fabius or in Brooklyn than in Rice Lake WI, but the fact is that it’s the holiday that most people are talking about at that time of year, and it seems a little odd to pointedly ignore it when our schools give concerts around that time of year. Perhaps, that’s why so many schools have moved their winter concerts from December to January so that the whole Christmas thing is a total non-issue.
But I still miss the mixed-music programs.