Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Saturday, December 25, 2010

For Unto Us A Child is Born - A Christmas Music Countdown

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6, King James Bible

Every family has its Christmas traditions. Our family opens one present at Christmas. This year, it was Mom’s new laptop computer, complete with wireless mouse and golden retriever puppies mousepad. Usually, Mom decorates her tree early on in the season. But as she’s gotten older (she’ll be 87 next month), even though it’s a very small tree, she’s found the task more tiring.

She came by my place hoping I had small string of lights. Alas, mine were burnt out. She didn’t know where to go for a small string. So I replied, “Mom, CVS has them – right down the road here.” To her surprise, she found the lights. My brothers and I were due at her house for dinner and the laptop premier. When I got there, she still hadn’t put the tree up. So after I ate, I had her sit down in the living room with her tea and I decorated it for her. It will probably be my task from now on, and a enjoyable task it. She has the cutest little ceramic, light-up train set.

Then we got her set up with her laptop. As you all know, it takes awhile. I got it running for her, uploaded the wireless mouse and all that. Then my younger brother got the laptop linked up to his router. In the meantime, my older brother arrived, and showed her some financial sites on the web that he knew would interest her, so she’d be more willing to try to learn how to use the mouse.

Finally, we got through the mouse lessons. They went better than I expected – my older brother was right – seeing financial internet sites motivated her. By 11 p.m., we had Mom plugged into the 21st century.

When we were all still living under Mom’s roof, the Christmas morning ritual was to listen to “Joy to the World” and “The Hallelujah Chorus” while we drank our eggnog and waited for everyone to gather around the nativity before opening our presents. My mother reminded us of who He was and that was He whom we had to thank for whatever blessings we received that Christmas. Some Christmases were scanty because we were poor, though never as poor as my mother’s family during the Depression.

So I lit up my angel nativity scene and then the Christmas tree this morning, put on the Mormon Tabernacle singing “Joy to the World” and “The Hallelujah Chorus” and thanked Him for the blessings I received this Christmas, particularly that of having enough werewithal to be generous to other people and see the joy on their faces. And of course, I have my new orchestra bells, sitting under the tree with a big silver ribbon on the case. My very own bells, at last!!

We play “The Hallelujah Chorus” for Christmas everywhere in churches and school concerts (or at least, we did when I was in high school). The entire libretto is taken from the Bible; it’s all bible verses, set to music. Handel was a word-painting composer – when he wanted to musically he describe a mountain for instance, he would have singers and/or instrumentalists literally climb up the musical scale, and then come back down the steep grade.

“The Hallelujah Chorus” was written for the middle section of “Messiah,” not the first, and is taken from the Book of Revelations, when The Messiah shall return to Earth in triumph to claim his crown. “For Unto Us a Child is Born” is part of the first section, celebrating Jesus’ birth.

According to Wikipedia: “Messiah” is an English-language oratorio composed by George Frederic Handel, and is one of the most popular works in the Western choral literature. T he libretto by Charles Jennens is drawn entirely from the King James and Great Bibles, and interprets the Christian doctrine of the Messiah. “Messiah” (often but incorrectly called The Messiah) is one of Handel's most famous works. The Messiah sing-alongs now common at Christmas usually consist of only the first of the oratorio's three parts, with Hallelujah (originally concluding the second part) replacing His Yoke is Easy in the first part.

Composed in London during the summer of 1741 and premiered in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742, it was repeatedly revised by Handel, reaching its most familiar version in the performance to benefit the Foundling Hospital in 1754. In 1789, Mozart orchestrated a German version of the work; his added woodwind parts, and the edition by Ebenezer Prout, were commonly heard until the mid-20th century and the rise of historically informed performance.

Messiah presents an interpretation of the Christian view of the Messiah, or “the anointed one” as Jesus the Christ. Divided into three parts, the libretto covers the prophecies concerning the coming of Christ, the birth, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and finally the End Times with the Christ's final victory over death and sin.

Although the work was conceived for secular theatre and first performed during Lent, it has become common practice since Handel's death to perform Messiah during Advent, the preparatory period of the Christmas season, rather than in Lent or at Easter. Messiah is often performed in churches as well as in concert halls. Christmas concerts often feature only the first section of Messiah plus the “Hallelujah Chorus,” although some ensembles feature the entire work as a Christmas concert. The work is also heard at Eastertide, and selections containing resurrection themes are often included in Easter services.

The world record for an unbroken sequence of annual performances of the work by the same organization is held by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, in Melbourne, Australia, which has performed Messiah at least once annually for 157 years, starting in its foundation year of 1853.

The work is divided into three parts which address specific events in the life of Christ. Part One is primarily concerned with the Advent and Christmas stories. Part Two chronicles Christ's passion, resurrection, ascension, and the proclamation to the world of the Christian message. Part Three is based primarily upon the events chronicled in the Book of Revelation. Although Messiah deals with the New Testament story of Christ's life, a majority of the texts used to tell the story were selected from the Old Testament prophetic books of Isaiah, Haggai, Malachi, and others.

In the summer of 1741 Handel, depressed and in debt, began setting Charles Jennens' Biblical libretto to music at a breakneck speed. In just 24 days, Messiah was complete (August 22 - September 14). Like many of Handel's compositions, it borrows liberally from earlier works, both his own and those of others. Tradition has it that Handel wrote the piece while staying as a guest at Jennens' country house (Gopsall Hall) in Leicestershire, England, although no evidence exists to confirm this. It is thought that the work was completed inside a garden temple, the ruins of which have been preserved and can be visited.

It was premiered during the following season, in the spring of 1742, as part of a series of charity concerts in Neal's Music Hall on Fishamble Street near Dublin's Temple Bar district. Right up to the day of the premiere, Messiah was troubled by production difficulties and last-minute rearrangements of the score, and the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Jonathan Swift, placed some pressure on the premiere and had it canceled entirely for a period. He demanded that it be retitled “A Sacred Oratorio” and that revenue from the concert be promised to local hospitals for the mentally ill. The work premiered April 13 at the Music Hall in Dublin, and Handel led the performance from the harpsichord, with Matthew Dubourg, an Irish violinist, conductor and composer, conducting the orchestra. He had worked with Handel as early as 1719 in London.

Handel conducted Messiah many times and often altered the music to suit the needs of the singers and orchestra he had available to him for each performance. In consequence, no single version can be regarded as the “authentic” one. Many more variations and rearrangements were added in subsequent centuries—a notable arrangement was one by Mozart, K. 572, translated into German. In the Mozart version, a French horn replaces the trumpet on “The Trumpet shall sound,” even though Luther's Bible translation uses the word “Posaune,” German for trombone.

The libretto was compiled by Charles Jennens and consists of verses mostly from the King James Bible, the selections from the book of Psalms being from the Great Bible, the version contained in the Book of Common Prayer. Jennens conceived of the work as an oratorio in three parts, which he described as “Part One: The prophesy and realization of God's plan to redeem mankind by the coming of the Messiah.” “Part Two: The accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Jesus, mankind's rejection of God's offer, and mankind's utter defeat when trying to oppose the power of the Almighty.” “Part Three: A Hymn of Thanksgiving for the final overthrow of Death.”

These “acts” may, in turn. be thought of as comprising several scenes:

Part I: The Annunciation

Scene 1: The prophecy of Salvation
Scene 2: The prophecy of the coming of the Messiah
Scene 3: Portents to the world at large
Scene 4: Prophecy of the Virgin Birth
Scene 5: The appearance of the Angel to the shepherds
Scene 6: Christ's miracles

Part II: The Passion
Scene 1: The sacrifice, the scourging and agony on the cross
Scene 2: His death, His passing through Hell, and His Resurrection
Scene 3: His Ascension
Scene 4: God discloses His identity in Heaven
Scene 5: The beginning of evangelism
Scene 6: The world and its rulers reject the Gospel
Scene 7: God's triumph

Part III: The Aftermath
Scene 1: The promise of redemption from Adam's fall
Scene 2: Judgment Day
Scene 3: The victory over death and sin
Scene 4: The glorification of Christ

Much of the libretto comes from the Old Testament. The first section draws heavily from the book of Isaiah, commonly believed by Christians to prophesy of the coming of the Messiah. There are few quotations from the Gospels; these are at the end of the first and the beginning of the second sections. They comprise the Angel going to the shepherds in Luke, “Come unto Him” and “His Yoke is Easy” from Matthew, and “Behold the Lamb of God” from John. The rest of part two is composed of psalms and prophecies from Isaiah and quotations from Hebrews and Romans. The third section includes one quotation from Job (“I know that my Redeemer liveth”), the rest primarily from Corinthians I.

Choruses from the New Testament's Revelation are interpolated. The well-known “Hallelujah” chorus at the end of Part II and the finale chorus “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” (“Amen”) are both taken from Revelations.

While modern performances of Messiah are most common during the Christmas season, the uncut text of the work devotes more time to the Passion and Resurrection than to the Christmas narrative. Nevertheless, it is common for Advent performances to include only the first 17 numbers of Part One and then substitute “Hallelujah,” the conclusion of Part Two, for “His Yoke is Easy,” the final chorus of Part One.

The most famous movement is the “Hallelujah” chorus, which concludes the second of the three parts. The text is drawn from three passages in the New Testament book of Revelations:

“And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.’” (Revelation 19:6)

“And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.’” (Revelation 11:15)

“And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, ‘KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.’” (Revelation 19:16)

In many parts of the world, it is the accepted practice for the audience to stand for this section of the performance. The tradition is said to have originated with the first London performance of “Messiah,” which was attended by King George II. As the first notes of the triumphant “Hallelujah Chorus” rang out, the king rose to his feet and remained standing until the end of the chorus. As royal protocol has always dictated that when the monarch stands, everyone in the monarch's presence is also required to stand, the entire audience and orchestra stood when the king stood during the performance, initiating a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries. It is lost to history the exact reason why the King stood at that point, but the most popular explanations include:

• He was so moved by the performance that he rose to his feet.
• He stood out of tribute to the composer.
• As was and is the custom, one stands in the presence of royalty as a sign of respect. The Hallelujah Chorus clearly places Christ as the King of Kings. In standing, King George II accepts that he too is subject to the Lord of Lords.

There is another story told about this chorus that Handel's assistant walked into his room after shouting to him for several minutes, with no response. The assistant reportedly found Handel in tears, and when asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to this movement and said, “I thought I saw the face of God.”

Since leaving the Christian church band we had played with for about 15 years, my friends and I have been playing with a community band whose members are primarily Jewish. The conductor is Jewish. Yet to my surprise, we’ve played Christmas concerts. This year, we played at a senior citizens home.

I never wanted to leave the church band. I had the perfect instruments. A gorgeous set of orchestra bells, electronic chimes, a beautiful, brand new xylophone that they bought specifically for me, and I even had a vibraphone. This conductor is a nice man, but a demanding, tough guy when it comes to music. He’s a professional conductor who volunteered to direct this community group. I’m by no means a professional musician. I have a stomach ulcer that just would tolerate that kind of stress. I wanted to play music for fun.

Every week, I would complain bitterly to my friends about the instruments I left behind. Luckily, this band always played its concerts in schools that were flush with bells, chimes, vibes, and xylophones galore. Up until this year.

With the tough economic times, it became too expensive to play in the schools: insurance, overtime for the maintenance and all sorts of other problems made those concerts were prohibitive. We would be lucky if we found a church that the band would agree to play at or a nursing home that would welcome us (that shouldn’t have been a problem – and wasn’t – because the musicians on this band are quite proficient; some are professionals or music teachers or both).

I couldn’t keep on asking the other band to loan me their bells. They aren’t very good bells, anyway. Students tend to get nervous if the sound is too loud, so the manufacturers lock down the bars of student bells so they don’t ring. It’s great for kids; frustrating for an adult musician. (It turned out the new bells rang so well, our conductor had to come back and ask me to play with softer mallets.)

Thanks to my mother’s generous Christmas gift, I was able to buy the bells and all the toys that go along with them: sleigh bells, whistles, triangles, slapsticks, and so forth. That also meant having to get tables to place both the toys and a set of tubular bells a friend loaned to me on. Not only is it a lot of work carrying all this stuff around, but it was costly. Most of that $1,000 Mom gave me went to my new career as a real musician.

No more playing around.

Still, I asked myself, “Why?” Why do I have to go through all this trouble when I had every instrument a percussionist could ask for back at The Big Church? I asked myself at hear rehearsals, after concerts when I was dead tired, even when I was formatting the Kiddie Christmas photos and found myself looking 150 times at the professional Santa Claus who looked an awful lot like our professional conductor (although his cheeks are rounder than this Santa’s were.).

Part of the answer came during a rehearsal for the Christmas concert. I don’t remember what we were playing, but it was one of the religious Christmas songs; I think it might have been “Joy to the World.” The band was stopped while they worked out some difficulty.

“I don’t get it!” he laughed, shaking his head. “I don’t know what it’s all about. I really don’t; I don’t know what it’s all about. But it’s okay. ‘Tis the season to be jolly. I can go with the flow. Let’s be merry!”  I could have answered him, but he was already such a daunting figure, that I knew didn't dare interrupt his rehearsal to explain it to him.

Some years ago, a Jewish co-worker said the same thing. We’d been talking about Santa Claus – Saint Nicholas, I corrected her. “Do you want to know?” I asked her. I told her it wasn’t my task to force the Good News on anyone. If someone asks, I’ll tell them. In fact, I’m duty-bound to do so. But I have to know if you really want to know?

She said she did and so I told her about Jesus Christ. To my surprise, within a few weeks she and her boyfriend converted. She said that her family was very upset that they were breaking with tradition and that it would cause a rift in the family.

I even told the girl, “Look, maybe you ought to just let it go. I’m sure God will understand.”

But she said she couldn’t turn her back on the truth and her boyfriend agreed (they had done more research on Christianity in the meantime, after my initial talk with her). One of the things she asked me was how the early Christians could be so sure at the birth of this child that he was destined to be The Messiah. The Jewish people thought The Messiah would be a mighty soldier sent by God to deliver them from evil here on Earth.

The reason The Messiah was revealed as an infant, born to lead us into salvation, was to satisfy all that He would retain His innocence throughout his life. Witnesses followed His life from His birth in a manger (a cave that served as a barn for sheep and cattle) to His death on the cross and His resurrection from mortal death.

Anyone could pop up in mid-life and claim, “I’m the Messiah!” But how would we know how this person had lived his life, what was in his heart, and what he really meant to do? Don’t we have that very problem with politicians? That we don’t really know their history, and often only learn of their misdeeds after they’ve been elected to office?

Christ’s birth was God’s assurance that Jesus, indeed, was the one whose coming was prophesied. We could trust Him with all our hearts and souls, and though unbelievable even to his most devout disciples at the time (until it happened), He would give His life for us so that we would be reconciled with God. The cycle of endless life and death would be broken, our sins forgiven, our place in Heaven restored, and peace forevermore.

Of course, that means we have to follow God’s Ten Commandments. We mere mortals tend to do two things: break them out of weakness or refuse to follow them, out of defiance. Where other religions don’t believe there can be any forgiveneness for sins (particularly for the second variety), Christianity teaches that there is forgiveness for the first, and hope and prayer for the second kind (after that, you’re on your own).

There are many good Jews (and other sorts) who are better, more devout than many Christians, and could get into Heaven well ahead of the rest of us – if only they believed it. In the era of Christ, the Jews had a little problem with someone going around telling people that their sins were forgiven them. They had a problem believing many things, such as poor people or people not of the Jewish race could worship God.

Christ (“the anointed, or chosen, one”) was God come to Earth and to life to have a little face-to-face, one-on-one chat with His people. Evidently, He got the idea they were straying from the faith, or keeping others from worshipping, not to mention the Romans, who didn’t care what deity you worshipped as long as you believed Caesar was Divine.

Christ, though He observed all the righteous rituals, had a little problem with all the rituals that were required to be worthy of God. He had another problem with the learned priests taking advantage of the illiterate shepherds and peasants. He was concerned about the extreme poverty and sickness He saw. So He came to do something about it. He healed the sick, taught the peasants to pray, and the priests their place in God’s kingdom.

“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

The people of the times still weren’t quite sure about this Jesus guy, though. He did a lot of neat stuff. He healed many sick people, kicked the priests’ butts, and gave to the poor. But how could they tell He was really the Son of God? Says who?

When put to the test, when He was put on trial, no one believed Him. He knew it was going to happen and that He would be put to death for heresy, by the Romans at the behest of the Jews. It was the moment He was waiting for, though He wasn’t crazy about it. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed to God to stop this thing from happening. But He knew it had to happen. It was what He was born to do.

On the third day after He was crucified, the stone to his tomb was rolled back and what do you think – no Jesus. No body. Supposedly, only the burial garments lay in the empty tomb. His followers ran around looking for him, thinking his body had been stolen, just as the Jews and Romans had.

But then a stranger spoke to Mary Magdalene. When she looked closer, she saw it was Him. He showed her the marks of crucifixion on His hands and even let her touch Him. She spread the word, but who would believe a woman, in those days. Finally, He revealed Himself to his disciples.

Today, people still don’t believe. They perform excavations looking for Jesus’ sarcophagus. Only there isn’t any. None of us are off the hook because He died for our sins, to save us. He said that the only way to God was through Him. God’s not a teddy bear, to be taken advantage of. Jesus said many people would shout “hallelujah!” and then go right back to their old ways, figuring that saying they were sorry would be enough.

That’s the reason the Christian Bible is made of the Old (Jewish) and New Testament, so they remember not to take anything for granted. So what it is, is that Christians shouldn’t count their halos before they’re cast, and Jews need to believe that everyone has the potential for redemption, to be forgiven and saved (if they want to be).

And that, CKY, is the best explanation this poor Christian can give you.  For me, that is my Christian duty.  Whether or not a skeptic is converted is not my responsibility.  But I believe it has been given to me (strange as that may seem) to spread the word to those who ask.  I have been tasked to leave the other band to answer someone's question in the other band.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Silent Night, O Holy Night - A Christmas Music Countdown

“Silent night,
Holy night,
All is calm
All is bright”

There are two songs worthy of Christmas Eve – “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.” One is quiet and gentle, the other, lofty and stirring. There are also some notable performances of each: “Silent Night,” by the Trapp Family Singers (of “Sound of Music” fame), and “O Holy Night,” by Jim Nabors

Let’s go to Wikipedia first for the history of “Silent Night.”

The original lyrics of the song “Stille Nacht” were written by Austrian priest Father Joseph Mohr and the melody was composed by the Austrian headmaster, Franz Xaver Gruber. In 1859, John Freeman Young (second Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Florida) published the English translation that is most frequently sung today. The version of the melody that is generally sung today differs slightly (particularly in the final strain) from Gruber's original, which was a sprightly, dance-like tune in 6/8, as opposed to the slow, meditative lullaby version generally sung today. Today, the lyrics and melody are in the public domain.

The carol was first performed in the Nikolaus-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Oberndorf, Austria on December 24, 1818. Mohr had composed the words two years earlier, in 1816, but on Christmas Eve brought them to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the church service.

In his written account, Gruber gives no mention of the specific inspiration for creating the song. According to the song's history provided by Austria's Silent Night Society, one supposition is that the church organ was no longer working so Mohr and Gruber created a song for accompaniment by guitar. Silent Night historian, Renate Ebeling-Winkler Berenguer says that the first mention of a broken organ was in a book published in the United States.

Some believe that Mohr simply wanted a new Christmas carol that he could play on his guitar. The Silent Night Society says that there are "many romantic stories and legends" that add their own anecdotal details to the known facts.

The original manuscript has been lost. However a manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr's handwriting and dated by researchers at ca. 1820. It shows that Mohr wrote the words in 1816 when he was assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria, and shows that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818. This is the earliest manuscript that exists and the only one in Mohr's handwriting. Gruber's composition was influenced by the musical tradition of his rural domicile. The melody of “Silent Night” bears resemblance to aspects of Austrian folk music and yodelling.

Another popular story claims that the carol, once performed, was promptly forgotten until an organ repairman found the manuscript in 1825 and revived it. However, Gruber published various arrangements of it throughout his lifetime and the Mohr arrangement (ca. 1820) is kept at the Museum Carolino Augusteum in Salzburg. The carol has been translated into over 44 language and recorded by over 300 artists. It is sometimes sung without musical accompaniment.

The song was sung simultaneously in French, English and German by troops during the Christmas truce of 1914, as it was one of the few carols that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew.

Many artists have recorded the song, and beautifully, but there is probably no more poignant version than that by The Trapp Family Singers, available on their CD, “The Sound of Christms.” This is the real Maria Von Trapp, her natural and adopted children, and unless I mistake, her husband, Georg, singing under the directorship of their priest, Dr. F. Wasner. How fitting that an Austrian family would be singing – in German and a capella, without accompaniment, a song written in their native country.

Their voices are sweet, clear and pure as the Alpine air which they breathed during childhood before eventually moving to America. In addition to the seven children from Von Trapp’s first marriage, he and Maria had three more children, and likely would have had more, but unfortunately, the other pregnancies miscarried.

Friends from Holland told us that such choral groups were very common. In spite of what the film says about the Von Trapps, Von Trapp and his first wife, Agathe, were very musical. Both were accomplished violinists, and the children were musically inclined as well. The child Maria was hired to tutor, also named Maria, was about 11 but suffering from the effects of scarlet fever (a disease that claimed her mother’s life). The girl’s violin was sitting in a corner until she was well enough to play again.

This “amateur” group is simply a sheer joy to listen to. They put many modern, “professional” singers to shame. They sing their way through their CD unaccompanied and faultlessly on key. Recently, Oprah hosted the great-grandchildren of Von Trapp and Agathe on her “Sound of Music” special. Like their grandparents, the quartet sang without accompaniment, sweetly and perfectly. Julie Andrews noted that during the filming of the Sound of Music, the producers add more child singers to fill out the sound of the music. These amazing kids needed no help.

Another singer who puts everyone to shame, particularly with his version of “O Holy Night” is actor – and singer – Jim Nabors. But first, the Wikipedia history of the song.

“O Holy Night” (“Cantique de Noël”) was composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to the French poem “Minuit, chrétiens” (Midnight, Christians) by Placide Cappeau (1808–1877), a wine merchant and poet, who had been asked by a parish priest to write a Christmas poem. Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight, editor of Dwight's Journal of Music, created a singing edition based on Cappeau's French text in 1855. In both the French original and in the two familiar English versions of the carol, the text reflects on the birth of Jesus and of mankind's redemption.

On Dec. 24, 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor, broadcast the first AM radio program, which started with a phonograph record of Ombra mai fu,” followed by him playing “O Holy Night” on the violin and singing the final verse. The carol therefore was the second piece of music to be broadcast on radio.

Operatic tenor Enrico Caruso recorded a version of the song with its original French lyrics in 1916. Originally released on a 78-RPM acoustical disc, it has turned up on several compilation discs on CD, notably Prima Voce: The Spirit of Christmas Past.

I have to look at my record collection, but I believe we have that original record in our record collection, passed on to us by our maternal grandparents. But for all the operatic singers who’ve recorded this song – and all wonderfully (I’m sure) – none is more amazing than the version by actor Jim Nabors.

James Thurston Nabors was born and raised in Sylacauga, Ala., on June 12, 1930, where he sang for his high school and church. He attended the University of Alabama, where he began acting in skits. After graduating, he moved to New York, where he worked as a typist for the United Nations. After a year, he moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., where he got his first job in the television industry as a film cutter. Due to asthma, Nabors moved to Southern California. While working at a Santa Monica nightclub, The Horn, he was discovered by Andy Griffith and consequently joined “The Andy Griffith Show,” playing Gomer Pyle, a dim-witted gas station attendant. The character proved popular, and Nabors was given his own spin-off show,  “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”

His act featured him as a character similar to the Gomer Pyle character he would later portray: he would sing in a baritone and sometimes his higher-pitched voices and speak in a higher-pitched voice. At the club, comedian Bill Dana saw Nabors' act and invited him to appear on “The Steve Allen Show.” Nabors signed on to the show, but it was soon canceled.

Nabors was then hired to play a one-shot role of Gomer Pyle, an “addlebrained” gas station attendant, on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Nabors's character (based on his act at The Horn) became so popular that he was made a regular on the show and was later given his own show, the spin-off, “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” in which his character joined the United States Marine Corps. The show, which placed Nabors' “bumbling” and “naïve” character opposite Sergeant Vince Carter (Frank Sutton), also proved popular.

Despite its airing during the Vietnam War, “Gomer Pyle” remained popular because it avoided war-related themes and instead focused on the show's rural roots and the relationship between Pyle and Sgt. Carter. Nabors quit Gomer Pyle after five seasons because he desired to move to something else, “reach for another rung on the ladder, either up or down.”

Though best known for his portrayal of Gomer Pyle, Nabors became a popular guest on variety shows in the 1960s and 1970s (including two specials of his own in 1969 and 1974) after revealing a rich baritone voice on a 1964 episode of “The Danny Kaye Show.” He subsequently recorded numerous albums and singles, most of them containing romantic ballads.

It’s said that Nabors knew exactly what he was doing portraying an addle-brained simpleton with the voice of angel. His act served us all right for judging by appearances. That makes him the perfect singer to warble the lines:

“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Away in a Manger - A Christmas Music Countdown

“Away in a manger
No crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His head”

This popular Christmas carol actually has two musical versions, and numerous lyrics. As a child, I learned the “Cradle Song” version, and later heard the version set to “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” Initially, I was very put out, because I generally preferred the first, the one I was used to singing. But with maturity, I learned to appreciate both.

According to Wikipedia, “Away in a Manger” was first published in 1885 in Philadelphia and used widely throughout the English-speaking world. In Britain it is one of the most popular carols, a 1996 Gallup Poll ranking it joint second.

The song was first published with two verses in an Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School collection, Little Children's Book for Schools and Families (1885), edited by James R. Murray (1841–1905), where it simply bore the title “Away in a Manger” and was set to a tune called “St. Kilda,” credited to J.E. Clark.

For many years the text was credited to the German reformer Martin Luther. Research has shown, however, that this is nothing more than a fable. In the book Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses (1887) it bears the title “Luther's Cradle Hymn” and the note, “Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” A possible reason for the spurious attribution to Luther is that the 400th anniversary of his birth was in 1883. The words were either based on a poem written for this anniversary or were credited to Luther as a clever marketing gimmick. This song has never been found in Luther's works. The first half of the melody is identical to the beginning of the second theme of Waltz #4, transposed down a fourth, in G'schichten aus dem Wienerwald, Op. 325, by Johann Strauss Jr., composed 19 years earlier.

The third stanza, "Be near me, Lord Jesus" was first printed in Gabriel's Vineyard Songs (1892), where it appeared with a tune by Charles H. Gabriel (simply marked “C”), thus these words are probably by Gabriel. Gabriel credited the entire text to Luther and gave it the title “Cradle Song.” This verse is sometimes attributed to Dr. John McFarland, but since the popular story dates his contribution to 1904 (postdating the 1892 printing by 12 years), his contribution is highly questionable.

Tom Jennings, director of worship and arts, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, consider this carol has odd or misleading lyrics, such as 'no crying he makes'. This lyric misses a key aspect of the Incarnation, Jesus entered into our suffering. [On the other hand, Christ died for our sins, not His own, since He didn’t commit any. He was the perfect baby, delivered directly from Heaven, as He was the perfect man, the model for an erring race, and its Savior. The lyric, “No crying he makes” indicates He was at peace from the very beginning.]

The lyrics and music are very similar to a very old Austrian (Tyrolian) folk song from the Brixon Valley, called “Es Wird Scho Glei Dumpa,” which in German is “Es Wird Schon Gleich Dunkel.” The first verse is roughly translated as:

It will be dark,
It is already night,
Drum I come to thee,
My Saviour to watch.
We sing a little song
The young child, the small one.
You may not sleep so,
I hear you cry only.

Hey, hey, hey, hey
Sleep sweet loving heart's child.

This was a lullaby and folk song in Austria long before attributed to Martin Luther, but was first published in 1913 in a collection named “Tyrolian Real Tracks,” and attributed to the Austrian dialect poet and Catholic clergyman, Anton Reid.

Murray's tune, which is the tune most commonly printed in the U.S., is typically given the name “Mueller.” The tune “Cradle Song” was written by William J. Kirkpatrick for the musical Around the World with Christmas (1895). Kirkpatrick, like others before him, attributed the words to Luther. Thus, there are two different melodies for “Away in a Manger.”

Wikipedia’s musicologists tell us the two tunes actually fit together quite well. An arrangement by Christopher Erskine combining both settings (harmony), first heard in 1996 in Canberra at the annual pair of joint Carol Services in Manuka, performed by the choirs of St Paul's Church (Anglican) and St Christopher's Cathedral (Roman Catholic). In this version the Kirkpatrick setting is sung by one choir, and the Murray setting by the other choir, alternating through the first two verses. Both settings are sung together for the third verse.

It is also sung to an adaptation of the melody originally composed in 1837 by Jonathan E. Spilman to “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.”

There are so many recorded versions of this song, Wikipedia doesn’t even list them. Practically every popular singer has sung it. However, while they’re no doubt all beautiful, I would recommend Julie Andrews’ version.

There’s just something so lilting and sweet about her voice, when she was in her prime, it’s no wonder she won awards for playing two nannies. Andrews began singing when she was 12, and had an incredible four-octave range. She made her Broadway debut in 1954’s “The Boyfriend.”

According to Wikipedia, her mother, Barbara Wells, was a singer and joined Ted Andrews in entertaining the troops through the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA).

Ted, Julie Andrews' stepfather, sponsored lessons for her, first at the Cone-Ripman School, an independent arts educational school in London, then with the famous concert soprano and voice instructor Madame Lilian Stiles-Allen.

“She had an enormous influence on me,” Andrews said. "She was my third mother – I've got more mothers and fathers than anyone in the world.” In her memoir, “Julie Andrews – My Star Pupil,” Stiles-Allen writes, “The range, accuracy and tone of Julie's voice amazed me ... she had possessed the rare gift of absolute pitch.”

According to Andrews: “Madame was sure that I could do Mozart and Rossini, but, to be honest, I never was.”

Of her own voice, she says, “I had a very pure, white, thin voice, a four-octave range – dogs would come from miles around.” [Not only did Andrews have a tremendous voice, but a great sense of humor.]

After Cone-Ripman School, Andrews continued her academic education at the nearby Woodbrook School, a local state school in Beckenham.

Julie Andrews performed spontaneously and unbilled on stage with her parents for about two years beginning in 1945.

“Then came the day when I was told I must go to bed in the afternoon because I was going to be allowed to sing with Mummy and Pop in the evening,” Andrews explained.

She stood on a beer crate to reach the microphone and sang, sometimes a solo or as a duet with her stepfather, while her mother played piano.

“It must have been ghastly, but it seemed to go down all right,” she notes.

Andrews got her big break when her stepfather introduced her to Val Parnell, whose Moss Empires controlled prominent venues in London. Andrews made her professional solo debut at the London Hippodrome singing the difficult aria “Je Suis Titania” from Mignon as part of a musical revue called “Starlight Roof” in 1947. She played the Hippodrome for one year.

Andrews recalled “Starlight Roof” saying, “There was this wonderful American person and comedian, Wally Boag, who made balloon animals. He would say, 'Is there any little girl or boy in the audience who would like one of these?' And I would rush up onstage and say, 'I'd like one, please.' And then he would chat to me and I'd tell him I sang... I was fortunate in that I absolutely stopped the show cold. I mean, the audience went crazy.”

On Nov. 1, 1948, Julie Andrews became the youngest solo performer ever to be seen in a Royal Command Variety Performance, at the London Palladium, where she performed along with Danny Kaye, the Nicholas Brothers, and the comedy team George and Bert Bernard for members of King George VI's family.

On the eve of her 19th birthday, on Sept. 30, 1954, Andrews made her Broadway debut portraying ‘Polly Browne’ in the already highly successful London musical, “The Boy Friend.” Critics hailed her as the stand-out performer in the show. Near the end of her Boy Friend contract, Andrews was asked to audition for My Fair Lady on Broadway and got the part.

Andrews auditioned for a part in the Richard Rodgers musical, “Pipe Dream.” Although Rodgers wanted her for “Pipe Dream,” he advised her to take the part in the Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner musical “My Fair Lady,” if it was offered to her. In 1956, she appeared on stage in “My Fair Lady” as Eliza Doolittle to Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins. Rodgers was so impressed with Andrews' talent that concurrent with her run in “My Fair Lady,” she was featured in the Rodgers and Hammerstein television musical, Cinderella. Cinderella was broadcast live on CBS on March 31, 1957, attracting an estimated 107 million viewers.

After that came Camelot, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music.

In 1997, she developed vocal problems. She subsequently underwent surgery to remove non-cancerous nodules from her throat and was left unable to sing. In 1999 she filed a malpractice suit against the doctors at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital who had operated on her throat. Originally, the doctors assured Andrews that she should regain her voice within six weeks. The lawsuit was settled in September 2000.

Despite the loss of her singing voice, she kept busy with many projects. In 1998, she appeared in a stage production of Dr. Dolittle in London. As recounted on the Julie Andrews website, she performed the voice of Polynesia the parrot and “recorded some 700 sentences and sounds, which were placed on a computer chip that sat in the mechanical bird's mouth. In the song ‘Talk To The Animals,’ Polynesia the parrot even sings.” She has also starred as the royal grandmother in “The Princess Diaries” and the nanny in the films of the “Eloise” series.

In 2004, Andrews performed the voice of Queen Lillian in the animated blockbuster Shrek 2 (2004), reprising the role for its sequels, Shrek the Third (2007) and Shrek Forever After (2010). Later, in 2007, she narrated “Enchanted,” a live-action Disney musical comedy that both poked fun and paid homage to classic Disney films such as “Mary Poppins.”

From 2005 to 2006, Andrews served as the Official Ambassador for Disneyland's 18-month-long, 50th anniversary celebration, the “Happiest Homecoming on Earth,” traveling to promote the celebration, and recording narration and appearing at several events at the park. In addition, Andrews has been the author of 23 biographies and children’s books

Only a few days ago, her husband, Blake Edwards, passed away from pneumonia at the age of 88. Yesterday, it was announced that Andrews would receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the 53rd Grammy Awards ceremony in 2011.

The award is well-deserved for this former resident of the London slums. She’s reached great heights with her singing and acting, charming audiences for generations.

And nobody can sing a lullaby quite like Andrews.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The First Noel - A Christmas Music Countdown

“The first Noel,
The angels did say,
Was to certain poor shepherds
In fields as they lay.”

According to Wikipedia, “The First Nowell” (also written The First Noël) is a traditional English Christmas carol, most likely from the 18th century. In its current form, it is of Cornish origin, and it was first published in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) and Gilbert and Sandys Christmas Carols (1833), both of which were edited by William B. Sandys and arranged, edited and with extra lyrics written by Davies Gilbert.

The melody is unusual among English folk melodies in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a variation on that phrase. All three phrases end on the third of the scale. The refrain, also unusual, merely repeats the melody of the verse. It is thought to be a corruption of an earlier melody sung in a church gallery setting; a conjectural reconstruction of the earlier version can be found in the New Oxford Book of Carols.

The word “noel” comes from the French word Noël meaning “Christmas,” from the Latin word natalis ("birth").

This birth was like nothing that had ever happened before. In ancient times, wise men believed their fates were linked to the movement of the stars. The appearance of stars and comets, the alignment of the planets and the stars in certain formations were portents of great things to come.

What the shepherds and the wise men found was a baby, whose future had been foretold and yet not even the wise men knew for certain what path His life would take. Born in humility and poverty, his birth was like no king anyone had ever heard of.

The shepherds were outcasts in the society, too poor and considered to unpure to worship in the great temples. The Gentiles had their own customs and were considered sinners by the Jews. What could this baby do for them?

The First Noel - The First Christmas - was only the beginning, a blank slate yet to record the deeds of the baby born that night. Yet those who witnessed his birth had faith that this baby would be the salvation of Mankind. The certainty of his footsteps had been long foretold. He would not fail in his mission, though He would inevitably sacrifice His own life to assure that success and gain us God’s mercy.

What seemed so simple to simple shepherds over 2,000 years ago perplexes modern man, with all his scientific knowledge and philosophy. We weren’t there in the beginning; we only have the testament of His witnesses as it has been passed down to us over the millennia.

Yet it appears that simple shepherds knew something on that First Noel that sophisticated, modern human beings, with their education and technology are missing. Politicians apologize for using the word “Christmas.” Average people hesitate to utter the words that illiterate shepherds could say without a stammer.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

White Christmas - A Christmas Music Countdown

“I’m dreaming
Of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow”

“Grab your pen,” Irving Berlin was said to have ordered his secretary, “and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written! Heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”

According to Wikipedia, the accounts of the origin of the song “White Christmas” vary, but this version says Berlin was sitting beside the pool at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Ariz., when the song came to him.

Of all the popular tunes written about Christmas, “White Christmas” is by far the most popular and the most sentimental. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the version sung by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide.

Crosby gave the first public performance of the song on his NBC radio show,The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day, 1941 and the recording is not believed to have survived. He recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers for Decca Records in just 18 minutes on May 29, 1942, and it was released on July 30 as part of an album of six 78-rpm songs from the film “Holiday Inn.” Crosby didn’t think there was anything special about the song. He just said "I don't think we have any problems with that one, Irving."

The movie was released in August and “White Christmas” initially performed poorly and was overshadowed by the film's first hit song, “Be Careful, It's My Heart.” By the end of October 1942, however, “White Christmas” topped the Your Hit Parade chart. It remained in that position until well into 1943. Wikipedia notes: “The mix of melancholy — ‘just like the ones I used to know’ — with comforting images of home — ‘where the treetops glisten’ — resonated especially strongly with listeners during World War II. The Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests for the song.

In 1942 alone, Crosby's recording spent 11 weeks on top of the Billboard charts. The original version also hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade for three weeks, Crosby's first-ever appearance on the black-oriented chart. Re-released by Decca, the single returned to the #1 spot during the holiday seasons of 1945 and 1946, becoming the only single with three separate runs at the top of the U.S. charts. The recording became a chart perennial, reappearing annually on the pop chart 20 separate times before Billboard Magazine created a distinct Christmas chart for seasonal releases.

Following its prominence in the musical, “Holiday Inn,” the composition won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. In the film, Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas” as a duet with actress Marjorie Reynolds, though her voice was dubbed by Martha Mears. This now-familiar scene was not the moviemakers' initial plan; in the script as originally conceived, Reynolds, not Crosby, was to sing the song. [But anyone who’s seen that scene knows it was absolutely the right choice and just leaves feminine hearts aflutter.]

The familiar version of “White Christmas” most often heard today is not the one Crosby recorded in 1942. He was called to Decca studios on March 18, 1947, to re-record the track; the 1942 master had become damaged due to its frequent use. Efforts were made to exactly reproduce the original recording session, and Crosby was again backed by the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers. Even so, there are subtle differences in the orchestration, most notably the addition of a celesta and flutes to brighten up the introduction.

Crosby was dismissive of his role in the song's success, saying later that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully.” But Crosby was associated with it for the rest of his career. Another Crosby vehicle — the 1954 musical White Christmas — was the highest-grossing film of 1954.

Crosby's “White Christmas” single has been credited with selling 50 million copies, the most by any release and therefore it is the biggest-selling single worldwide of all time. The Guinness Book of World Records 2009 Edition lists the song as a 100-million seller, encompassing all versions of the song, including albums. Crosby's holiday collection Merry Christmas was first released as an LP in 1949, and has never been out-of-print since.

“ItsRanked” ranked Crosby's “White Christmas” as the number one Christmas song on its Top 40 Christmas Songs of all time. In 1999, National Public Radio included it in the “NPR 100,” which sought to compile the one hundred most important American musical works of the 20th century. Crosby's version of the song also holds the distinction of being ranked #2 on the “Songs of the Century” list, behind only Judy Garland's “Over the Rainbow,” as voted by members of the RIAA. In 2002, the original 1942 version was one of 50 historically significant recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. The recording was broadcast on the radio on April 30, 1975, as a secret, pre-arranged signal precipitating the U.S. evacuation of Saigon (see Fall of Saigon).

Irving Berlin's opening bars are often dropped in recordings, but are included on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, sung by Darlene Love, and on Barbra Streisand's A Christmas Album.

“The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North.”

No one will ever sing “White Christmas” quite the way Bing Crosby did, although many artists have recorded their renditions. There are two credible recordings worth the listen: a version sung by Country singer Tammy Wynette, and an instrumental version by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, with a violin solo that just tugs at the old-fashioned heart strings.

Anyone living below the 40th parallel doesn’t stand much of a chance of getting a White Christmas. The National Weather Service decree states that there can’t just be snow on the ground on Dec. 25th – it must actually be snowing. They have map of the United State, showing the chances for a White Christmas. If you’re in Palm Springs, or Palm Beach, the only way you’re going to see snow is if you shake your snowglobe.

The same for the southern regions of Texas and Louisiana. New York City and that region may see some snow showers. Oddly enough, Washington, D.C. is always more likely to get snow that New York or even Boston. Must be all those subway grates in New York.

The song, of course, is so old-fashioned that unless they live in the countryside, children aren’t likely to know what a sleigh bell is, except in stories. The only place they’re likely to hear one now is in a musical concert or on a Christmas CD.

Still, “White Christmas” gives us back that old-fashioned feeling for a few minutes at least, when there are no cars, subways, trucks, or jets; just the stillness of a winter countryside setting, and the approach of a horse drawing a sleigh, its occupants bundled up in furs and cloaks, its jingling muted by the newly-fallen snow.

Those were the days. I guess.

Monday, December 20, 2010

We Wish You A Merry Christmas - A Christmas Music Countdown

We wish you a Merry Christmas (x3)
and a Happy New Year.

Good tidings to you, where ever you are
Good Tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year

In the John Denver with the Muppets (“A Christmas Together”) version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” one of the Muppets sings, “and bring us some figgy pudding,” Miss Piggy misunderstands him. “Piggy pudding?!” she thunders. The offender corrects her. “Figgy pudding. It’s made with figs.” “Oh,” she says. “And bacon.”

Wikipedia tells us that “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is a popular secular 16th-century English carol from the West Country of England. The origin of this Christmas carol lies in the English tradition where wealthy people of the community gave Christmas treats to the carolers on Christmas Eve such as “figgy puddings” that were very much like modern-day Christmas puddings. It is one of the few traditional holiday carols that makes mention of the New Year celebration.

Wishing people a Merry Christmas has become something of a controversy here in the United States. Government employees and even private sector employees are not allowed to give the greeting. Christmas trees and parties have become “Holiday” trees and parties. We must be inclusive of all the cultures that don’t celebrate Christmas so they don’t feel left out, excluded from the festivities.

The message of Christmas, though, is that all are welcome. We are all brothers and sisters under one God, whose Son brought about that reconciliation. But non-believers take umbrage at that simple wish. They don’t feel the joy and how dare anyone try to make them feel it.

As Christians, it is our duty to wish others a Merry Christmas, even if they don’t believe. We who have accepted the gift are honor bound to pass it on to others, particularly those who don’t understand it.

One great, modern tradition is the lighting of houses in suburbia. Part contest, part pageant, a drive through any well-lit neighborhood at this time of year is quite a treat. You get to see the sight yet stay warm in your car. Inevitably, you’ll come across a darkened house, which means the person was unable to put up a display, couldn’t afford the electricity, or is not a believer. Our neighborhood used to look like the landing strip at Cape Canaveral, which was many years ago.

Technology and determination have made great strides in forty years. Some decry it as commercialism; I like to think of it as the light of Christmas bringing hope and joy to the world. We may not be allowed to say “Merry Christmas” in public. But until it’s outlawed (which could happen), we can still say “Merry Christmas” on our own private property, in brightly colored lights. But we can depend upon our government to find a way to negate this form of religious expression as well.  Right now, they’re letting a timid marketplace do their enforcing for them.

Personally, I prefer J.C. to P.C.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Angels We Have Heard on High - A Christmas Music Countdown

“Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!”

“Angels We Have Heard on High” commemorates the story of the birth of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel of Luke, in which shepherds outside Bethlehem encounter a multitude of angels singing and praising the newborn child.

The words of the song, according to Wikipedia, are based on a traditional French carol known as “Les Anges dans nos campagnes” (“Angels at our campaigns”) composed by an unknown author in Languedoc, France. That song has received many adjustments or alignments, including its most common English version that was translated in 1862 by James Chadwick, the Roman Catholic bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, England. The carol quickly became popular in the West Country, where it was described as “Cornish” by R.R. Chope, and featured in Pickard-Cambridge's Collection of Dorset Carols.

There is also a Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) translation of the carol which is known as Ainglean chuala sinn gu h-ard (literally, “Angels We Have Heard on High”). This was translated into Gaelic by Iain MacMilan from James Chadwick's English translation.

“Angels We Have Heard on High” is most commonly sung to the hymn tune “Gloria,” as arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes.

“8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby [Bethlehem], keeping watch over their flocks by night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ* the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising god and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” Luke 2:8-15 NIV Bible

No one hears angels telling them to seek out the Lord’s Christ (Greek for “anointed one”; the word Messiah in Hebrew, has the same meaning). Our secular government does everything possible to prevent anyone from spreading the Good News to those whose hands are clamped over their ears and whose eyes are blinded by pride and arrogance.

Missionaries are forbidden from “proselytizing” in Muslim countries. Where they do dare to tread, they’re murdered and persecuted. Chinese Christians must worship in secret. They face long imprisonment for worshipping Jesus. Here in America, in this lst week of Christmas shopping, we’re more apt to be contemplating what to get that difficult relative for Christmas, than what Dec. 25th is all about.

Nobody even knows when Jesus was really born. Some experts say it was in the Spring. Since the early Christians would have been persecuted by the Romans if they celebrated His birth, they shrewdly chose the longest, darkest night of the year, Saturnalia, the winter solstice, a Roman holiday of feasting and drunkeness, to celebrate instead.

The darkest, longest night of the year. When else could the star of hope shine brighter and more keenly, piercing the darkness of our human souls? That’s just when we need it most. Oh, I suppose, there’s nothing wrong with the gift-giving, though we could do it a little less grudgingly to those we don’t get along with so well. The children we give presents to, if we raise them in God’s way, will one day understand the real gift that was given to them, and be charitable and kind to others in their time.

I gave a gift to a co-worker with whom I was not well-pleased (nor she with me). She and another co-worker, in one week’s time, did a credible job of progressing my ulcer to a new state of misery. All over a mere nothing, to demonstrate their power. Yet I gave them their gifts anyway. They aren’t always as bad as they were this past week and Jesus bade us to forgive our enemies even unto the seven and seventieth time.

In fact, I gave gifts to all my co-workers, as I always do. We have a gift exchange every year, so people don’t have to go bankrupt getting everyone else presents. I do it as a test. Can I assess the person correctly and get them a present that will bring them joy? And, can I do this even for the meanest of my co-workers? Can I let past transgressions and arguments go?

When my mother was a schoolgirl, she a nasty little classmate. This girl made fun of my mother’s poverty and was pretty merciless with everyone else, too. When it came time for the class Christmas grab bag, there was no present for this girl (my mother had chosen someone else’s name).

Mom’s gift was homemade and she had made an extra. Some sort of woven or embroidered bookmark, I think it was. The mean girl was in tears. Nobody knew who was supposed to give her the gift. The teacher saw that my mother had made an extra bookmark.

The teacher took her aside and asked her to give it to the little girl for Christmas. My mother protested. “She’s been mean to me and to everyone all year long. Maybe she doesn’t deserve one.”

The teacher told my mother that Jesus’ gift to us was forgiveness. That was the gift he expected us all to return to one another, she said (or words to that effect). The teacher helped my mother wrap it up hastily. The teacher then produced it, saying the gift had been over looked.

At the end of the school year, there was a student awards ceremony. My mother was given a blue ribbon for team spirit (I believe that was the nomination, anyway). Being adult, we don’t need blue ribbons or medals. Our reward is to see the smile on the face of the recipient of our gift.

“Beam me up, Scotty!”