Christ is born!
For today’s Nativity feast, I wish to offer a few more samples of Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” for which Gustav Holst provided a musical setting. I wrote about the carol five years ago with different samplings: “In the Bleak Midwinter.” For this carol, I prefer female solos, and my favorite version from my personal album collection is with Kiri Te Kanawa. Here she sings for a televised holiday special.
I also found a version with Susan Boyle and Libera at Royal Albert Hall.
Thomas Bertonneau has shared a thoroughly charming item on the Orthosphere in “Western Culture I.” It is a music video of a Japanese group named Goose House doing a cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Enjoy:
I thus commented on Bertonneau’s post:
I love it. (Cultural appropriation sirens go off) Seriously, how did the “multicultural” Left transform into the enforcers of xenophobia? Human culture = cultural appropriation . . . that’s a good thing, overall.
Also, I have a theory about “imperial peoples” and “tribal peoples.” The imperial folks are into cultural appropriation — they’re interested in the rest of the world and have a strong cosmopolitan aspect in their national character. This need not conflict with a healthy nationalism and sense of identity. Indeed, the latter allows for the former to be useful and strengthening (broadening those horizons). Tribal people, by contrast, are ethno-narcissists — they have little interest in anything that doesn’t prominently concern themselves. As charming as tribals can be, I confess to finding the imperials far more fascinating and worthy of breath. Yet, liberalism is far more dangerous to imperials; without a privileging of one’s own, liberal imperial societies are wont to produce strays who go native — leading Arabs into battle, wearing dashikis on campus, joining ISIS, etc.
Lastly, the Japanese appear to be a well constituted imperial people par excellence. And John Denver is super. And that is a great song. Hurray for this post!
I have loved this song since childhood—it’s the perfect American song. First, it stirs feelings of home in the soul and works well as popular poetry with the simple but impressing images that it evokes (“Dark and dusty, painted on the sky . . .”). It is also quite easy to remember and sing, which makes it a good democratic song for group participation and ongoing cultural use—and appropriation! Furthermore, it is about Appalachia, perhaps the most “Old American” part of the country, as hill people tend to keep memories longer than most folks. The song itself celebrates this grateful returning to the old. Critics call such nostalgia-kitsch. I call it human.
As Dr. Bertonneau notes in his response to my comment, the Japanese young’uns’ performance is superb. I watched the video multiple times, and the grin on my face and the warmth in my heart grew with each viewing. They harmonize well, and they certainly are enjoying themselves. That is what music, youth, and fellowship should entail—joy (not always, of course, but regularly). Joy unmitigated by self-conscious pride or fear! I imagine that such is a foretaste of paradise—of real freedom subjectively experienced. Children facilely enter into such a state naively, but then most people lose that ability as they age. The wonder in their eyes dims. Their sense of self overshadows their self. They become too comfortable in the world, which paradoxically renders them less comfortable in their skin. Sadly, children are beasts, bereft of reason and good judgment, often slaves to their passing fancies. How unfortunate it is that the experiences that form human beings and allow them to tune their moral instruments almost invariably dull the glorious qualities of their state of innocence. After the fashion of wise men and poets, we might say that the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve slowly forget Eden the longer that they stay in the world. Fools and saints may remember the voice of their shepherd, but the herd in general comes to hear only the sounds of coins jingling, sycophantic flattery, and carefully memorized insults and slander.
Enjoy a folksy oldy from A.D. 1962, Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes.” I could not find a recording of a live performance; the song alone will have to do.
My father believes that this song is my anthem. Were I choosing an anthem for myself, I’d probably pick Smetana’s Má Vlast, but I can see Dad’s point. How odd it is that an old Red yenta-turned-Unitarian represents a throne and altar meets blood and soil traditionalist like myself. Well, we despise many of the same cancers in our body politic.
As a follow-up to “Christian Kitsch,” I would like to share Jane Scharl’s “The Gospels according to Thomas Kinkade and Jean-Jacques Rousseau” from the Intercollegiate Review. Scharl argues that there is a spiritual background behind shallow Christmas art, which she describes as the most that a secular world can provide:
Rousseau’s sublimation is the best we can hope for from secular traditions. Secular Christmas music, even the best, exemplifies this attempt to sublimate experienced feelings—of loneliness (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), nostalgia (“White Christmas”), or love (“Let It Snow”)—beyond their context in ordinary life and elevate them to the level of the sublime. A sublime experience is a universal experience, one that has meaning outside of itself that both clarifies and validates it. This is the purest impulse of secular Christmas: to elevate our experiences to the level of the universal, and in so doing, to create a myth of Christmas to validate the feelings that punctuate our lives, even if just for one day.
We all hold an ideal of secular Christmas in our imaginations, even though for most of us it has never happened: cottages covered in snow, lanes fretted with sleigh tracks, children laughing, clear voices singing in a village square lit by lamps. Countless sugar cookies made by a smiling family while a perfect tree gleams in the corner and orphans smile at the feet of Santa Claus. It’s the Gospel according to Thomas Kinkade. But in this picture, the light illumines only itself, reflecting endlessly. It doesn’t illumine—or transform—the things of the world.
Scharl contrasts Kinkade’s work with that of Rembrandt to make her point. Pitting Kinkade against the Dutch master strikes me as a bit unfair, but I found her essay insightful.
I found a cheeky but thoughtful musing by Paul Griffiths on Christian kitsch in Duke’s Divinity Magazine, “A Defense of Christian Kitsch.” Griffiths argues that kitsch is the bread and butter of pious art for Christianity, “a religion of peasants and proles.” Therefore, he states, Christians should hesitate to look down on the gospel according to Thomas Kinkade.
I am not sure what to think. Griffiths is correct that most Christians have been from the unwashed masses; the good news is for all people, plumbers and MOMA curators alike, and there are always more of the former than the latter. However, I hesitate to agree with him—not (principally) because I am an insufferable snob whose stomach twists when I see sappy religious pictures and Jesus nightlights—but rather because art for the masses appears to have different characteristics in different regimes. In our contemporary democratic culture, mass tastes and consumption largely dictate what the entire society appreciates. Yes, we have art critics in the New York Times, and elite opinion trickles down (yes, yes, that cerulean speech in The Devil Wears Prada). Yet, our society’s master class appears generally content to fill the trough according to the swine’s appetite. In more hierarchical societies, the elite largely determines the aesthetics of the lower classes. Maybe, I just do not know enough about peasant art in ages past, but pre-modern religious art does not strike me as kitsch. Some of it crude, perhaps, but not kitsch (compare the paintings in the catacombs to the papal commissions of the Italian Renaissance—a striking difference in quality, but neither is kitsch). Consider traditional Christian iconography, the stained glass windows of Western Christendom, or the mosaics of antiquity. I do not even know whether we should call the governing force of such art “elite” taste—rather, artisans tended to work with canonical styles (hence, being determined by tradition, not any group’s fancy). The architectural progress of sacred buildings clearly involved the engineering elite, commissioned by the secular and ecclesiastical elite, but entire towns were involved in cathedrals’ construction and adornment. Would you call the windows of Chartres kitschy? Would the Most Reverend Maurice de Sully have found the aesthetic tastes in sacred art of his poor parents so different from that of the royal court? Griffiths even mentions the icons of Andrei Rublev, but surely this example provides a stumbling block for his position. Russian peasants and proles have always adored the transcendent beauty of Rublev’s iconography.
Christian kitsch may simply be yet another symptom of our decadent age.
That said, who doesn’t like angels and kittens, together, lightly hovering over little girls in Easter dresses having afternoon tea with their teddy bears in a peaceful meadow (with birds, chipmunks, and lots of unidentifiable flora in the background)?
I wish my fellows on the old calendar a joyous Christmastide. On this day after Christmas, we celebrate the Synaxis of the Theotokos. I suspect that the Solemnity of the Mother of God that the Roman Church observes on January 1 evolved from this feast. The Synaxis of the Theotokos follows a pattern in the Church calendar whereby we remember holy men and women (and angels) on the day following a great feast in which they play a part. For example, we celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos on September 8/21 and the feast of Joachim and Anna, her parents, on September 9/22. Similarly, we observe the Synaxis of John the Baptist (January 7/20) on the day after the Theophany (January 6/19), when we celebrate the baptism of the Lord, the feast of Simeon and the Prophetess Anna (February 3/16) on the day after the Meeting of Our Lord (Candlemas on February 2/15), and the feast of the Archangel Gabriel (March 26/April 8) the day after the Annunciation (March 25/April 7).
For your pleasure, here are many Ukrainian Christmas carols:
Snow is falling on this beautiful winter day. Merry Christmas to the new calendarists and Advent greetings to my fellows on the old calendar.
Fitting for the day is one of my favorite carols, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Here is the choir of King’s College in Cambridge singing Gustav Holst’s “Cranham” setting for Christina Rossetti’s lovely poem:
Here also is a video of Julie Andrews in a Christmas special from A.D. 1973.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
The sweet little song reminds me of the uncanny power of poetry. It can be so simple, but the images that it deftly evokes move one’s soul in a fascinating manner.
Enjoy the festive season.
On this Adventist Friday the thirteenth, I offer you something sweet and heavenly—the old German carol “Susani.” Here it is performed by Protestant boys in the Dresden Kreuzkirche:
Lest Lutherans feel privileged, here is the carol sung by Bavarian Catholic fellows (the “Cathedral Sparrows” of Regensburg) in front of what appears to be the Nuremberg Frauenkirche:
I’m a sucker for lullabyish Christmas carols. Lieblich!
This past weekend, I attended the Panegyri Festival while visiting home. I had not been to the Greek fest for many years, and I was surprised by how much it had grown. Besides the food (the food!), the main entertainment consisted of music and dancing. At the end of the evening, the musicians and dancers welcomed the audience to participate in the communal dancing. While I watched the revelers, I thought about the communal aspect of the dancing. Everyone participates in such circle dancing; it is a group oriented activity. While there may be individual or coupled dancing, the chief Greek dances are communal. The same seems to be true for many other ethnicities. This appears quite unlike the somewhat exclusive coupled dancing of the Anglosphere, though square dancing and other forms of complex dances that use couples as their base units tend toward the communal. I wonder if communal dancing reflects the more communal social tendencies of certain peoples whereas our American focus on coupled dancing results from our WASPy nuclear family model society.
Crist is arisen!
My friend Andrew sent me a Western hymn for Pascha of which he is quite fond—“Now the Green Blade Riseth.” I had never heard it before, but it is catchy and earthy. Here it is sung by the choir of Ely Cathedral:
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
In the grave they laid him, love whom men had slain,
Thinking that never he would wake again.
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green,
Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain.
Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.