Merry Christmas From an Infidel

According to Collins English dictionary, an infidel is “a person who has no religious belief; an unbeliever”. That fits my personal religious beliefs quite nicely. I believe in the interconnectedness of the universe. I am not hostile to religion if it is used for good, whatever that happens to be. If a person has religious belief in order to be a better person, to understand what it means to be human or if they have had such a deep emotional experience that having faith is the only path for them, I will not diminish their experience by my lack of belief. Which brings me to celebrating the birth of Christ. I think that Christ existed but I have not had any personal experience of accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour nor have I been baptized into the Christian faith; therefore, I cannot call myself a Christian or anything else. Calling myself an infidel is a little more succinct, less flowery and perhaps more cheeky than calling myself a believer in the interconnectedness of the universe.

Still, I love Christmas. I have clearly established that I’m not a Christian; the holiday does not have any religious significance for me, despite the fact that I sing about the birth of Jesus Christ for hours per day. I love Christmas for the amount of live and recorded music that proliferates nearly every public space. I love the fact that I get to sing with my singer buddies on a nearly daily basis and I make a living doing so. I love Christmas for the delicious foods accompany the holiday such as egg nog, gingerbread, short bread, the sweet smell of cinnamon, Christmas dinner – all comfort foods. I love how pretty everything looks. I love the cosiness of home and most of all, I love how we make an effort to connect with our family, friends and humanity. I don’t think that many of us non-believers say Merry Christmas for any religious reason. What is meant in that greeting, at least for the non-religious, is to wish good upon your fellow humans. Christmas is a means to positive connection or at least that’s what we long for. My favourite Christmas songs are sacred and I think that it’s because they all have, in one way or another, themes of connection.

One might ask, “Aren’t you sick of Christmas music? Do you really want to sing “Jingle Bells” anymore?” The answers are no to the first question and well, not really to the second question but I’ll put my voice into “Jingle Bells” because that’s what people want to hear. I love the fact that for one month per year, many people aren’t afraid to sing in public nor are they afraid to hear others singing unaccompanied. Singing a well-known Christmas song in the middle of a shopping centre, restaurant or a corporate function brings live music directly to people in a setting where it would not normally occur. Yes, I do get some dirty looks but the looks of delight are far more common. If “Jingle Bells” is one of the few songs people know and they enjoy it, what does it matter if I’ve sung it for the 10th time that day? That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. I’m grateful to be in a profession that provides positivity to someone’s day. It’s good for my mental and emotional wellbeing and I can only assume that’s the case for others. I get to sing with my musical friends for a living for one month out of the year. Not too shabby.

Certain Christmas carols are musical comfort food for me. Some of my favourites are “Est Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen”, “In Dulci Jubilo” and “Josef Lieber, Josef Mein”. Now, why would 400 or 500 year old German Christmas music be comfort food to a “small l” liberal Canadian infidel with no German roots? I didn’t grow up with this music, we never went to church and I never even heard these hymns until I started singing choral music in my early twenties. To me, the harmonies feel warm, cosy and sweet on the tongue – like apple cobbler rich with the smell of cinnamon and cloves. Comfort music, like comfort food is sometimes what you’ve come to associate with certain things as an adult, not necessarily the comforting associations of your childhood. I’ve sung this music at Christmas time as an adult so perhaps that’s why I have these warm, cosy associations with German Christmas music.

Musically, these hymns offer the ear a great deal of complexity and cohesion that interlock in sweet perfection. When I was 22, I sang “Est Ist Ein Ros” by Michael Praetorius for the first time. It’s a sweet, simple hymn in F Major and the harmonies are pretty straightforward, mostly I IV V and a minor chord or two. Then, on the last system, the alto line has a tasty moving part followed by a C Major and – wait for it – a D Major chord comes out of nowhere and then we head back to F Ma. The first time I heard that abrupt chord change I was shocked. I have sung Est Ist Ein Ros’ at least 200 times in the last 22 years and I still find that D Ma chord to be one of the most delightful and stunning harmonic shifts I’ve ever heard. “In Dulci Jubilo” lives up to its name “In Sweet Joy”. It feels bell-like, rocking in 3/4 time with the text alternating between Latin and German or Latin and English depending on the version. It’s also known as “Good Christian Men Rejoice”. The infidel feminist in me prefers “In Dulci Jubilo”. Besides, the Latin text is in the “In Dulci Jubilo” version and Latin is a lovely language for singing – nice, open vowels. “Josef Lieber, Josef Mein” is pretty and melancholy at the same time, both of which appeal to my sensibilities. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” is a gentle, lilting melody, also in 3/4 time. I find certain text in the song such as “dear desire of every nation” strangely moving. I don’t know why but I find the way the chord changes, the melody and the text fit together deeply satisfying.

We sang Christmas carols as a family on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day when I was a child but my musical identity as a singer has really been established as an adult. Maybe the Christmas songs that I have come to love have more to do with the person and the musician that I am now and not necessarily who I was as a child. Perhaps I love Christmas and the more religious, traditional Christmas carols because as I get older and raise my children, I desire human connection even more and these carols provide that connection on some level. There are traditions with which you are raised and ones that develop in your adulthood.

As I sing my last few gigs of the season, this infidel wishes whoever is reading this blog post a very Merry Christmas.