Here is a Christmas tale that you might find hard to believe, reading about it in 2004. It is about Christmas time in the early 1950s, at the William B. Hanna public elementary school in Philadelphia.
Every year when December came around, we sang Christmas carols in our twice-weekly assemblies. We sang “Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and the other carols that were well known to every girl and boy, as well as to their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
But that’s not the part that’s hard to believe. Everyone knows that American children used to sing Christmas carols. Here’s the fantastic part of the tale: My mother, an atheist from a Lutheran background, and my father, an atheist from a Jewish background, never raised any objection to our singing these carols that celebrated the birth of Jesus. And as far as I know, neither did any of the Jewish teachers at that school, of whom there were several.
In fact, we sometimes sang those carols at home, with my mother playing them on the piano.
There’s more: The bible was read at those school assemblies all year long, usually a psalm. My parents did not object, though I believe my mother asked the teachers not to have me read. And more: We sang hymns. I remember the wonderful voice of the man who taught fifth grade booming out the Lord’s Prayer. I remember singing “Holy, holy, holy…blessed trinity.”
I asked my mother what Blessed Trinity meant. She told me it meant Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. That’s what Christians believe in, she said. She didn’t believe it because she didn’t believe in God at all. But she didn’t mind my knowing about what Christians believed, or singing their songs. Since most people were Christian, it would be kind of odd not to know anything about them, like living among a tribe of Indians and never wondering what their rain dances meant.
But there was another reason for not objecting to the Christmas carols, and for singing them at home. They were wonderful music, and we liked music in our family. We never sang “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” at home because we considered them inferior songs. They were fun to sing sometimes, but they couldn’t compare with the poetry and melodiousness of the real Christmas carols.
Those real carols were written by people who loved Christmas, who loved Jesus and the story of his birth. They were talented composers and talented writers and they put their feelings and their gifts into the songs, and that’s why the songs were still loved and sung decades or even centuries later.
They were sung by the mostly black students at my elementary school, even though every one of the songwriters was white. They were sung by the few Jews whose families had remained in the neighborhood. And they were sung by my sister and me, the children of Atheist communists. They were part of our common heritage.
My parents were communists before being left-wing meant that you had to be offended at everything. They appreciated good music and art and literature, and therefore did not hate the culture that had produced them, which was a Christian culture.
We’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we? Now there is a class of the offended and threatened who have shut down public expressions of Christmas. This has produced a divided culture, where non-Christians think – or profess to think – that Christians are some strange cult devoted to imposing their religion on others. They are easily made to believe this because knowledge about Christianity – one of the main wellsprings of western civilization – is confined to those who seek it privately, in their churches.
Now schoolchildren don’t learn to sing anything much, I don’t think. They are too busy with other things to have assemblies devoted to singing, the way we did decades ago. If they sing at Christmas, they sing things like “Frosty the Snowman.” And “Winter Wonderland.” And they might learn songs of Hannukah, or Kwanzaa, or maybe Native American chants. But nothing remotely connected with Christmas, or somebody will object.
They will probably hear Christmas carols around them, played in public in some places – though fewer and fewer public places as people fear objections and even lawsuits from the offended ones. But the carols will not become a part of them the way songs do that you sing over and over. They will grow up with advertising jingles their common musical culture from childhood, and little connection to the long, beautiful tradition of Christmas music.