Ronald Blythe: Akenfield
Merry Christmas

An Advent Note

This year I have to a great extent managed to stay clear of the un-Christmas, the festivity now generally referred to in public as Holiday, or "the Holidays." That was partly because of various circumstances that kept me even more at home than usual. And it was partly the silver lining in Alabama having lost two games this season. I loathe TV commercials in general, and rarely watch TV that includes them. But when I do see them it's during football season, and from some time in October until the end of the year many of them involve Holiday, and thus are doubly, no triply, annoying. But Alabama football was over at the end of the regular season--no SEC championship game, no watching other games that might affect Alabama's place in the playoff picture--but also no more Holiday commercials. (I only care about the NFL when former Alabama players are prominent--congratulations, Jalen Hurts.)

And it was partly just the latest phase in a general re-orientation of my feelings at this time of  year. I've realized that one element of my hostility to Holiday was the way it had come to seem like something of a parody of Christmas. So it seemed like a cheat, making me struggle not to dislike it, even to hate it.

But as the divergence has continued I find that the two are now more separate in my mind. I wrote about this last year in my very brief career writing for The Lamp. And I find that this year I've been more able to take my own advice, and that Holiday does not much intrude on my observance of Advent. I'm even mildly cheered by the lights and other spectacles at people's houses, though walking into a store pretty much sours my mood, as does the Holiday music (which naturally gets stuck in my head).

Which does not mean that I've been very good about observing Advent by treating it more like Lent. But I have done something, and in this department something is always better than nothing. And one thing I've done is to begin reading a book that I've had for several years and that is very well suited to Advent: the prison writings of Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.


Delp was an opponent of the Nazi regime, and in the last days of the Reich he was arrested on a charge of involvement in a plot against Hitler. He was not involved, but the prosecutor was determined to convict him of something, and as is almost inevitably the case when the law becomes a tool in the hands of power, he succeeded. It was late 1944 and early 1945, when the Reich was clearly doomed, and its enemies were pouring destruction upon Germany; the consequences of the nation's madness were being made brutally clear. The prison writings are the voice of a man unjustly imprisoned by and facing death at the hands of unreasoning and implacable enemies, a man stripped of any impulse toward sentimentality and false hope. It's a voice I need to hear. 

Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, we cannot understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly.

First, that life is both powerless and futile insofar as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment. 

Secondly it must be recognized that it is God's alliance with humanity, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement toward fulfillment. But this also means that in this progress toward fulfillment humanity is vulnerable; we are perpetually moving toward, and are capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.

While time lasts there can be no end to it all and to try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion is one of the illusory temptations to which human nature is exposed. In fact hunger and thirst and wandering in the wilderness and perpetual rescue by a sort of life-line are all part of the ordinary hazards of human existence. 


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Wow! Words to which I must return.

Bracing--especially that first paragraph.

I cannot help but wonder if Fr. Delp knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I forgot to mention during lunch that the holiday music this year is driving me particularly mad!

My big objection to the holiday music is that it sticks in my head for hours afterwards. If it was just the momentary intrusion I wouldn’t mind. Or if it’s good music. I went around for several hours yesterday with “you better watch out, you better not pout” on repeat in my head.

Over the past few years I've had a working rule where I try as much as possible to not do anything "holiday" related until after St. Nicholas Day, in order to put off the madness as long as possible. I avoid the malls and get in and out of supermarkets as fast as I can, and even though I begin thinking about some of the Christmas planning, I don't really approach it in earnest until after Dec. 6.

Last weekend I had lunch at a local Chinese restaurant and they were playing this horrible music that was all uptempo R&B/"dance" versions of Christmas songs, almost like disco. It was just awful. Needless to say it didn't help my digestion.

Ugh. The grocery store is one thing, a restaurant is quite another.

It occurred to me after I posted this that I haven't had to go to the big shopping areas where traffic is heavy. That has a lot to do with my relative equanimity.

Regarding Delp and Bonhoeffer, I haven't seen any mention of their knowing one another but they are certainly similar figures.

Interesting, Rob. I take the opposite tack: I try to get as much done as possible in November if it involves going into stores. I make a lot of edible gifts, so I can buy ingredients early and then spend December cooking at home while playing real Advent music.

I have it easier than both of you...I don't do much of anything. I say that with no pride.

Unfortunately, Anne-Marie, where I live Christmas decorations and music in the stores kick off immediately after Halloween, so shopping in November is, alas, no help. In fact, I loathe it intensely, as to me it screams commercialization. Compare the fact that on the day after Christmas many stores will begin displaying for Valentine's Day their nonsense for a "holiday" that is still seven weeks away. Thus to the retailers, in a certain sense there's no difference between Christmas and the other commercial holidays except in terms of volume.

For several years I've been meaning to write a piece on the changes in approach to Christmas music between the 60's and now, prompted by listening to some of those old Christmas LP's put out by retail outfits (Firestone, Goodyear, etc.) in the late 50's and through the 60's. Even though they were obviously "commercial," they did manage to maintain a sort of healthy balance between fun and piety. Sometime in the 60's though, that began to get lost, so that by the 80's the "sacred" aspect of Christmas music was all but gone, and anything that remained of it was viewed primarily as nostalgic. I think this can help explain why today's Christmas music is so dreadful.

"I have it easier than both of you...I don't do much of anything."

Interesting observation: I've found as I've gotten older that I have much less "Christmas spirit" before the holiday than I used to -- it tends to start manifesting itself shortly before, and then lasts longer afterwards, if that makes sense. So while I find myself doing not "much of anything" beforehand, comparatively speaking, I do relish the day itself and its aftermath, to the point where I always try to take the whole week between Christmas and New Year's off.

The stores here also get their Christmas stock out early--one even before Halloween!--but it's less intense, it's mixed with Thanksgiving and general autumn stuff, and there's no Holiday music.
Rob, did you see the Post article about how "A Very Special Christmas" changed the relationship between pop music and Christmas? I haven't read the whole thing, and I know too little about music to judge it anyway. (Shouldn't be paywalled)
I, too, have less "Christmas spirit" in December as I get older. I've come to see that a lot of what I put effort into when the kids were little was somewhat pedagogical. This year, for the first time, all the kids were either moved out or away at college and I didn't even put greenery around the Advent candles. But that leaves us the energy to celebrate Christmas for twelve whole days! We finish up with all the kids and grandkids together for an Epiphany feast and exchange presents then.

Lots of money involved, so I think it means we're doomed -- in a piece at Bloomberg on the business aspect of it all:

'Whether you consider it torture or treasure, blaring Christmas music has become a reliable part of the holiday shopping season.

From malls to grocery stores, highly curated playlists are all part of the bigger scheme to create the best consumer experience possible, one where customers are put in the mood to buy.

“Retailers definitely lean in,” said Radhika Giri, the senior vice president for emerging business at SiriusXM, which has a few enterprises devoted entirely to providing playlists for retail stores. During her more than 12 years at the company, she’s seen demand for such songs only increase. “Every year one of the requests we would get is whether we would start playing holiday music earlier and earlier.”

Nearly all of SiriusXM’s playlists for businesses begin streaming on Nov. 1, and have names ranging from “Jingle Jamz” to “Country Christmas.” With a market value of $23 billion, SiriusXM, which bought Pandora Media in 2019 for $3.5 billion, is one of the largest audio providers in North America. Both entities have teams devoted entirely to creating playlists for stores, and last January, the company expanded further into the arena by buying Cloud Cover Media, a company that has dominated the space of curating music for national brands, like McDonald’s and Party City.

The bulk of national brands opt to outsource their playlists in part because of how cumbersome it can be to deal with music licensing in order to play songs in public spaces, according to Giri. Whole teams of business experts and musicologists work together behind the scenes at companies like SiriusXM to determine the delicate balance of striking a perfect mood for customers.'

More in the piece on how they make music selections:

Wow, that's really grim. I figured the "canned music" in a business of any size was supplied by some other business in the Muzak mold (don't know if that brand is still around). But I had no idea it was such a big deal. "the space of curating music for national brands"...groan.

Making me feel worse: I did not know Pandora had been bought. I liked thinking of it as it started out, a company started and run by a music enthusiast.

I was in the grocery store earlier this evening and found myself sort of enjoying the canned Holiday music. That's partly because Christmas is only two days away. And partly because it was a fairly tasteful selection. Johnny Mathis or someone similar singing "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," a woman whom I didn't recognize doing a properly subdued "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. "

A very old man kind of reaction I guess.

Thanks for the links, ladies. The one on 'A Very Special Christmas' is interesting, in that I have no recollection either of the album or of what publically-played Christmas music sounded like before it. It may very well have been the game-changer the piece describes it as.

And the Bloomberg article is indeed grim.

"it was a fairly tasteful selection"

Yeah, that makes a difference. It's the over-the-top, silly and tasteless stuff that makes me cringe.

Last night while she was cooking dinner, my daughter tuned into an oldies radio station that was playing pop versions of carols and up came Stevie Nicks singing "Silent Night" from that 1987 "A Very Special Christmas" album. Turns out Nicks changed the lyrics, removing "Christ the Savior is born" and "Jesus the Lord at thy birth". Guess that album really was a kind of watershed moment.

I didn't notice the Very Special link earlier. It would be perversely amusing for me to list everything in it that's a peeve of mine, e.g. Stevie Nicks's "iconic voice." Removing Jesus from Silent Night is way beyond a peeve. But I won't. I didn't know the album existed and with luck will never hear it. In the spirit of trying to find something nice to say (it's Christmas Eve!), I'll say that the story of the album's making is kind of sweet.

And in fairness I have to admit that the production of junk "holiday" music goes back a long way. Rudolph must have been one of the first. I don't really know why it became...iconic. :-( But surely the proportion of junk to worthwhile is greater than it used to be. Surely?

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