Wednesday, December 26, 2018


I blame the Christmas specials.

I could blame my parents for letting me watch television during the holiday season, which might have more Freudian endorsement, but let's go with the shows themselves. Every year, somebody had to save Christmas. There was, therefore, a great deal of anxiety that Christmas might not happen.

The stories were not remotely realistic, of course, but they might just as well have been speaking to children of all ages. In fact, I think they were.

What if Christmas doesn't come this year?

Let's refine the question.

What if Christmas doesn't come well this year?

You know what I mean. Something has to happen in order for it to be a good Christmas. To carry the joy of the season. To be worth waiting around all year for. To give you that magical feeling that everybody around you seems to be preaching at you that you are supposed to have.

Counter to that, Blue Christmas services have sprung up around the country, telling people who are sad during the holidays that it is ok to be sad during the holidays. I don't know when the first one actually happened but I think it may have been started by Charlie Brown, who was honest enough at the start of the famed Christmas special to admit that he was depressed during the season and didn't know what was the matter with him.

If I had Charlie in my company right now I would tell him to own his melancholy. That Christmas is supposed to be an emotional challenge sometimes. That the light comes in darkness but that there has to be a darkness in order for the light to shine in the first place.

Also, don't let everybody else tell you how you ought to feel. They are frequently hiding something themselves. And un-challenged mirth can be pretty vapid, anyway.

But somehow, every year, there is, at least in the back of the mind, that feeling that what is supposed to happen might not happen. That certain customs have to be observed, certain people have to be seen, certain cookies have to be consumed, certain feelings have to happen at certain times.

I feel myself wanting to quote from that great Christmas movie, Star Wars: It's a trap!

Specific expectations have a way of doing that to us. Which is why, on this blog dedicated to music, I want to bring up (but not play, believe it or not for copyright reasons!) a particular piece of music.

John Cage most likely did not celebrate Christmas. He was a Buddhist. His philosophy of non-attachment probably informed one of his most famous pieces, 4'33", in which a pianist (in one of the multiple versions) simply sits at the piano and plays nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

It is a piece about--and I use the term advisedly--our expectations, and how, if you put a border around it and approach it as if it has significance, any period of time, any event unfolding around us, can be considered art.

One of the traditions around this piece is telling stories about the odd things that happened that "were" the piece when we performed it. A student at a seminar in grad school told how a class sat silent while the piece was being performed by a professor until at last a door opened in the back of the large, bowl-shaped lecture hall and a student from a previous section came in to retrieve his umbrella. That was the piece.

When I played the piece, for a lecture on modern music, the piece was a bunch of senior citizens sitting listening to the hum of the flourescent lights and the noise of the traffic outside until one of them suddenly had an epiphany. "It's a piece about silence!" she informed her neighbor, a little too loudly. For the next minute there was a ripple effect through the room as everyone had to tell their neighbors what the piece was about. Then quiet resumed, and the lights hummed and the sirens pierced the air and calm carried us to the final "cadence."

The piece is about something different every time. You can't control it. You can't know what it will be. In fact, it is a little odd to think that a piece like that could produce anxiety at all, but like all things human, once a tradition gets going around it, that can happen. You expect something quirky and interesting to occur that you can tell a story about later or else it was a failure.

One time I played it for a prelude at a church service. I am not making this up. One of the working titles of the piece actually was "morning prayers" and since it lends itself to silent meditation it seemed like a good idea. It was also, on this occasion, connected with the morning sermon. I started the piece. We sat in silence. I ended it. Still silence. Restful, I thought, but I wonder if it was anything more.

I found out afterwards from my wife that a woman had entered mid-piece, saw everyone with their heads bowed in silence, and whispered "did somebody die?"

It was that one stroke on a blank canvas, like the retrieved umbrella, or the epiphany, the surprise surrounded by silence, that did it for me. But I'm a little weird.

In the end, it had meaning. What it meant, I couldn't tell you. But each performance had its own identity, and felt real. And, there was no way to make it happen. You just had to let it be what it was.

I'd like to suggest we approach Christmas with some of the same peace. I've title this blog 2,678,400 because that is how many seconds there are in a 31 day months, and, in my scheme (and on this website) the Christmas season and its concomitant decorations, lasts from about St. Nicolaus Day on December 6th, to Epiphany on January 6th. During that time, whatever happens, is Christmas.

there was also a recorder ensemble. Those are some pretty bad-ass recorders!
What is on your list of requirement? Try them. But if you don't get them all down, or if they don't turn out right--let's say you burned the cookies or your cat destroyed the tree or your best friend didn't like their present, or even if you lost someone you loved--that was Christmas. And it is special, and meaningful, because it is. And if anything really off-the-chart nuts happens it will make a great story later. That's one of life's great pay-offs. Present suffering can make future merriment. If you tell the stories the right way.

This year, Christmas was relatively conventional for me. I didn't have my wife with me on Christmas
Eve because she is working nights, and I'm not being invited to play as many Christmas programs as I used to because I'm still somewhat new in town and it's hard to break in. But I did participate in a wonderful Christmas Candlelight concert with my friend Tim at the Methodist church and there were some really nice cookies afterward. I had just enough raisin wine at another party to get a throbbing Christmas headache, and we finally got to sing most (but not all) of the important Christmas carols at my church.

It was different. By the old standards it may have been missing something. But it was Christmas. It wasn't like any of the others. But it was.

If you feel like you missed yours already, I can offer you this: Christmas in January. Or February. It can happen whenever it wants to. I used to celebrate late so I could enjoy the relaxation of it after a schedule of concerts, rehearsals, and services all month. And if you still don't feel it, maybe that's because you gave yours to somebody else who needed it very much and they are thanking God for you right now and you may never know that. Christmas has a funny way of leaking all over the place. It often doesn't do what we expect. And it may not appear in a welcome form, at least at the time.

But Christmas comes anyway. Recognizing it when it comes, and how it comes, brings joy in its wake.

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