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Around this time every year, the Congregational church in my village holds a carol sing. Although mine is a secular family, we have felt a proprietary affection for our spare white church since my brother and I were small and hailed the bronze weathercock atop the steeple with “Cock-a-doodle-do, Rooster” every time we drove by. When it is lit up for the carol sing the windows glow yellow and the Rooster Church looks too perfect to be real, like a miniature church with a light bulb inside bought to accompany an electric train set.
Inside, the carols sound improbably beautiful; I have never been able to understand how a bunch of people without much musical talent individually can sound so good singing together. By some trick of the lighting or of my imagination, everyone looks as beatifically illuminated as the delighted magi in Renaissance paintings. Through the north-facing windows you can see Christmas lights twinkling on the blue spruce across the street that in the daytime shades the plaque commemorating the young men my village has lost in every war since the Revolution. And although I haven’t gone to the carol sing in years, this is still what I think of whenever I hear Christmas carols: my village’s eighteenth century church filled with light and unexpectedly lovely music that turns everyone’s faces soft.
This is why I have found trips to CVS so traumatic in recent weeks. I will half-recognize the songs that are playing—will hum absently as I compare the merits of various shampoos, will think, “Now where do I know this from?” as I give the cashier my ExtraCare card. But I will not be able to place the song until I step out into the December chill and realize with a start that the song was “What Child Is This?” rendered unrecognizeable by the warbling of a female vocalist. And I will try unsuccessfully to reconcile this Christmas carol with the Christmas carol of the same name and roughly the same tune that I have sung in the Rooster Church. It is a horrible shock, like recognizing the features of a grade school friend behind the heavy makeup of one of those young women who loiters in the mall food court. The worst part of the shock is realizing that the potential for cheapness lurked in “What Child Is This?” even as we sang at the Rooster Church.
I do not mind the secularization of Christmas, and I don’t even mind its commercialization. For better or for worse, there is a commercial Christmas, represented by Santa Claus, garish Christmas lights, “A Christmas Carol,” jammed airports and shopping malls and scary claymation TV movies about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Commercial Christmas may not have much to do with the original Christmas, but it is a tradition in its own right, one that exists beside traditional Christmas as the star of a biographical movie exists beside the movie’s subject. What bothers me is the decline of the other, traditional Christmas.
Christmas is the only holiday for which my family puts leaves in our dining room table and uses all four of the stove burners at the same time. It is the holiday richest with ritual. And carols epitomize Christmas ritual: I love them not for the way they sound but for the way they are sung in the Rooster Church in December, when everyone’s voices blend to share the “Coventry Carol” as it has been shared since the sixteenth century.
And I hate hearing “What Child Is This?” in CVS because it is a selfish rendition of a song that’s meant to be shared. Folk musician Pete Seeger says that singing has only recently become the province of professionals and stopped being an everyday way of expressing oneself. Christmas carols played in CVS worry me because they challenge the populism the song has retained in the Rooster Church in December, and thus the spirit of Christmas itself.
Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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