Though I fancy myself an improviser and pride myself on spontaneity and my ability to respond to the needs of the moment with humor, wit, musicality and occasional intelligence, I am also a creature of habit. Every year, I begin the decoration of the Christmas tree with the same ornament from my childhood, a delicate red ball that says Silent Night and has been in my family some 65 plus years. And I put on a record—yep, a record on my still-functioning-but-rarely-used-turntable of carols sung by the Prague Madrigal Singers. One side is a mix of European carols and the other all Czech carols. The singing is pitch-perfect and beautiful in the way that mid-European singing can be and the accompaniment tasteful and just right, including an orchestra, organ and occasional bagpipes.
Daughter Talia happened to be over for dinner and she sang along with the Czech carols—the melody, that is. These are songs that are not well-known the way other carols are—like the English 12 Days of Christmas, Welsh Deck the Hall, German Oh Christmas Tree, Austrian Silent Night, French The First Noel. (Looking these up, I was surprised to see how many carols I assumed were European were actually composed by Americans in the 1800’s—Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, I Heard the Bells, We Three Kings. Then there’s the American jazz-influenced songs of the 20th century—White Christmas, The Christmas Song, Let It Snow, Winter Wonderland, all written by Jewish composers!)
But back to the Czech record. I have never celebrated Christmas in the Czech Republic, nor in any European country for that matter, but there is something that comes through in these songs.
Suddenly it’s not just a random collection of tones and scales and chords and timbres, but a music that sings an entire mythology, songs that proclaim that we are in this world and it is wondrous and it is beautiful and we belong and that the snow is not just cold and inconvenient, but an exquisite song of silence and the lights are not just telling us to buy things, but are bringing the heavenly firmament down to earth and that the gathering of people in a church is not about who’s in and who’s out, who’s on top and who’s a loser, who’s cool and who’s pretty, but about warm bodies ensouled by their collective singing voices. Each song is a testament to the simple miracle of life, rich with meaning and the indisputable sensation that God, i.e. the Spirit that infuses each atom of the material world, is in his heaven and we are in that heaven and in spite of every news article, all is right with the world. That’s what comes through for me hearing these songs once a year at the right time, in the right place, with the right lighting and the right feeling in the air.
And never for a second do I wish they were jazzier or had a djembe beat or were played on a shakuhachi flute or accompanied by electric guitar. They are precisely the right songs in the right style sung the right way for the right reason—to wholly express one tiny facet of the jewel that a human life can be. In three notes they say more clearly and deeply and profoundly what I’ve taken four paragraphs to try to capture in words and failed so miserably to do. That's the power of music.
At any rate, I could add spending Christmas in Prague to my bucket list and that might be quite interesting. But as long as my Silent Night ornament holds together and my turntable still works, it’s just fine to travel to heaven at the drop of a needle. I believe I’ll keep the Czech carols on my ritual check list.