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A Wassailing

It’s been another crazy week, Gentle Reader. Between working at my day job and frantically scanning the web to try and keep up with current events, I’ve had little time for writing, and no time to think about what I was going to post this week. I’d thought about dissecting the effects the grotesque tax bill will have on freelance artists, but since that bill is going to reconciliation and even the people who wrote it (literally in crayon) don’t seem to know what’s in it, that’s too hard a task for now. (Even so, if you have elected officials to yell at, you should go yell at them as soon as you’re finished reading this.) And I’d thought about writing about the ongoing revelations of sexual misconduct that have been roiling the arts community, but that story keeps changing and getting worse every second.  Such is the state of America in these last weeks of 2017.

No, I’ve been too stressed to think clearly, let alone write, and some measure of rejuvenation was clearly in order. So in that spirit, I went to my first holiday party of the season, a fundraiser given by the folks at Smith Street Stage. Smith Street is notable for the extraordinary quality of the music it commissions for all its projects, and that extended to a holiday fundraiser. A skilled jazz pianist and drummer were set up in the center of the Brooklyn venue, playing adroit arrangements of holiday music. Guests came up and sang Christmas standards. They even referred to the event as their Winter Wassail, to give you an idea of how seriously they take their music.

Listening to spirited arrangement after arrangement, a realization struck me. One that I’d never expected to have on a chilly December night. Prior to last evening’s festivities, I’d barely heard any Christmas music this year.

At first glance, this seems like a ridiculous statement. This country has been celebrating Christmas since approximately noon on Halloween. I’ve recently spent the equivalent of a full 24-hour day driving to and from North Carolina for Thanksgiving, with the radio picking up nothing but Christmas music all along the I-95 airways. This country is desperate for a pick-me-up right now, and Santa and sleigh bells always seems to deliver that.

But I’m not talking about the volume of Christmas music; I’m talking about variety. During those epic drives up and down I-95, I heard the same dozen or so recordings over and over again. And again. And again. And I’ve gotten so used to that being the case that simply hearing a jazz version of Good King Wenceslas blew my mind. When was the last time you heard some version of Good King Wenceslas on the radio? Or Jolly Old Saint Nicholas? Or God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen? Heck, that last one served as the basis of a folksy duet between Sarah McLachlan and Barenaked Ladies that used to get lots of airtime. This year, nothing. I’ve been alive for a whole bunch of decades now, and the Christmas music I’ve been exposed to in my lifetime has encompassed everything from traditional Victorian carols to show tunes, to alternative covers and American Idol bombast, everything from The Messiah to Christmas in Hollis. And yet the amount of Christmas music being commercially broadcast hasn’t expanded – it’s radically contracted.

It’s a useful little microcosm to look at. Because their profits depend on appealing to the widest base of audience possible, the commercial broadcasters are convinced they can only use the most obvious of popular songs. Any deviation risks some fraction of us changing the channel. And so, this time of the year, they pick those same dozen songs and play them over and over and over again. And in the process, they wear them out. Remove all meaning from them. Render them inert.

Want to make the holidays great again? Embrace everything about them. Crank the Duke Ellington version of The Nutcracker from the album Three Suites (it was literally my family cat’s favorite record). Follow that up with Fairytale of New York and some Anonymous 4 medieval carols and Back Door Santa. It’s a big wide world and a bustling time of year, and if you don’t respect and venerate all of it, if you assume your little slice is the only part of it that matters, then you’re only going to suck it dry and render it joyless and barren.

And that’s true of anything else you care to make great again.

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