Friday, December 28, 2012

The Sacrament of Snow

I always resented the song “White Christmas,” just a little bit. It’s a lovely song, vastly popular, of course. But I thought it set up the yearly, often disappointed expectation of snow on Christmas day. (The seldom-heard introduction refers to the usually snow-free Beverly Hills which elicits nostalgia for snowy holidays past.) What does it matter if snow falls on Christmas or not?

But I realized there is much more to the expectation of a snowy Christmas! The Christmas 2012 issue of BBC Music magazine has an interesting article, “A Christmas Carol” (pp. 27-34) by David Owen Norris. The author writes that, in pre-Victorian England, harvest season was poised to be a more beloved time of year than Christmas; harvest time rather than Christmas had an appealing narrative of well-being, plenty, and human relationships, while Christmas was just a cold winter holiday that elicited painful longing. However, Norris states that Christmas carols began to make a comeback during the early Victorian period, eclipsing harvest-related hymns. Consequently, Christmas grew in popularity during the 1800s, partly on the basis of this musical appeal.

The real innovation, though, came from Rev. John Mason Neale (1818-1866). He and a colleague produced hymn books for churches. A 16th century Finnish song concerning spring and flowers inspired Neale to write new lyrics, which became “Good King Wenceslas.” What was so innovative about Neale’s song, is that it is the first time a Christmas song links the holiday with snow (p. 31)!  You would think someone would have associated snow and Christmas, but according to Norris, other songwriters (even Scandinavians) had made reference to Christmas cold weather (“The First Noel” is an example) but not to Christmas snow.

Neale's association of snow and Christmas was brilliant and influential. From the publication of “Good King Wenceslas” in 1853, other poets and songwriters found inspiration in the image of Christmas snow, notably Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” but also many others (pp. 31, 33).

The religion-science debates of the era provided a different kind of inspiration for the theme of Christmas snow. The Darwinian debates that threatened to erode religious belief necessitated new metaphors for spiritual truth. Snow---peaceful, beautifying, and descended from above---became a perfect metaphor; as Norris writes (p. 34), “If science was concerned with facts, religion with miracles, then the Victorians found a snowy bridge between them.”

Furthermore, that affirmation of miracles was better expressed through song than prose. “Only song could convey these new meanings of Christmas snow... The familiar yet fundamentally irrational human act of singing together was the perfect medium. (Irrationality is important to us in matters of the spirit: look at the idea of carols by candlelight, which could only become truly symbolic once electricity had made the candles pointless.)....

“The very mirage of a white Christmas... became a new way of thinking about miracles, allowing snow to become the outward sign of an inward grace---a secular sacrament. Snow imagined, snow longed for, makes space for a Christmas miracle” (p. 34).

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