Saturday, December 19, 2015

Non-Christmas Holiday Songs: A Long December

Watch/Listen: A Long December 

Just a quick note this month, as the Christmas season revs up, the weather gets chill and my students save their very worst writing for their final exams…thanks guys.

I live overseas, so I get to watch the Christmas wars a safe distance from the fire zone. I don’t quite have my finger on the pulse of home in the way I’d like, but from all the reading I’ve been doing, I would venture that the whole who can say what and to whom and when has gone a bit out of control—I’m looking at you, Yale University… Seems a little silly to be afraid to say “Merry Christmas” to someone because you’re afraid of causing offense. Seems a little silly to be worried about almost anything that comes out of your mouth that’s not outright hostile or explicitly directed to cause harm or hurt—I’m talking about ‘micro-aggressions,' you guys. Seems like this year, 2015, has been the year of hurt feelings, where the retort of “you can’t say that!” is enough to ruin someone for speaking their minds—I’d never defend abusive or offensive intentions. Mean people can go spin, no matter what they look like, as far as I’m concerned. But, from my vantage, which is safely out of range of the people I most fear, the state of the free world appears to be pretty…unfree.

Where I dwell, they celebrate New Years in the same way we Christians celebrate Christmas—lights, trees, gifts, parties and booze. They celebrate Ramazan here (Ramadan to you), and I get the ‘iyi bayram lar’ all time, which is Turkish for have a holly, jolly…holiday. It’s nice—being included in another culture’s religious celebrations. It proves modern holiday and merry making has very little to do with religion for most of us. It’s about family, its about celebrating the things that make us happy—despite which god we choose to open our wallets to…I mean, pray to. Sorry.  This insistence on removing the offense from the season is so counter to what the season is really about, and that is finding the value in fellowship and remembering the outstanding benefit one gets from being overtly and studiously kind to his—or her, or it’s—fellow man, woman or other.

Reveling in the better parts of our nature should be what we most celebrate at this time of year—worrying about offending others as we do so…seems a little silly/stupid, don’t it?

Anywho…let’s get back to the music, the real reason we’re all here.

Music is always part of that merry making at Christmas time, and that, at least, should be reserved from judgment and above the realm of offense. Here’s the thing you need to remember: when you think about it, most of the tunes we hum along to really aren’t about Christmas at all…funny. “Let it Snow”, “Walking in a Winter Wonder Land”, “Jingle Bells”, just to name a few, have nothing at all to do with the reason for the season.  Seems to me, if people were willing to let go of the angst that makes them so comfortable in their misery, the ‘holiday’ season might actually be able to accomplish its most important objective: to make you happy.

And, then there’s this: To eat too much. To forget about the past year and look forward to the next. To reset goals, to forgive yourself for failing in the goals you set exactly one year before. To be nicer to other people. To realize this spinning bit of rock and water and air we call home is a miraculous place and could be even better if we all took just a little bit of responsibility for each other’s happiness. Christmas wishes, I suppose…let’s get to the music.

The tune I’ve chosen this month is a winter-themed song, not a holiday. The Counting Crows, a band I’ve written about before, do downcast as well as they do upbeat, and one of their most popular songs (for all the right reasons), is the winter ballad, “A Long December”—a rather dark look back on a year gone awry.

You know the song—I don’t need to try to find the words to describe the traditional piano figures and crescendo choruses that work so well to draw out a sense of sadness and belief in something better to come. I love this track for its barroom sorrow and its rousing encouragement to ‘na na na” along to. The melody speaks for itself, striding but still shadow and sadness. It’s a unhappy song, about endings, about failings, but it rises to a hopeful continuance, knowing that maybe “this year will be better than the last.” That’s a good enough Christmas gift for me, this year, and all the ones to come. 

This is video I shot of The Counting Crows doing "A Long December" this past August in Pittsburgh, Pa. It was my third show on their glorious "Somewhere Under Wonderland" about things to be thankful for...and speaking of's a shot of the best moment I've ever had at a Counting Crows show, aside from getting to meet them...

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Non-Christmas Holiday Songs: Happy Joyous Hanukkah

The Klezmatics: Happy Joyous Hanukkah [purchase]

For the next two weeks, we will be looking at holiday music that is not Christmas related. This is not evidence of the phony War on Christmas. Instead it is actually a surrender to the Christmas juggernaut. There is so much Christmas music that we decided to sweep it to the side this year, and leave space for other songs of the season, secular or religious.

Hanukkah is a difficult holiday, and not only to spell. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy playing hot and cold and getting presents—usually eight, one for each night representing the key myth of the holiday, slow burning oil—when I was a kid, or lighting the menorah, or (especially) eating latkes. But I quickly came to realize that my family’s (and most Jews’) celebration of Hanukkah was really so that we wouldn’t feel left out when all of the Christian kids were having their big, gift-laden Christmas celebration.

In reality, Hanukkah is a pretty minor holiday in the Jewish religion. It is so minimally important that observant Jews don’t have to do, or refrain from doing, anything particularly special. There’s no service, you can drive, work, do whatever, as long as you light the menorah at sundown. Instead, it just became a big deal because it had two critical attributes—it came around the same time as Christmas, and there was a tradition of gift giving, although typically “gelt” or money, in modest amounts. But, over time, starting in the United States, and then traveling around the globe, it became a bigger and bigger deal, as a seasonal counterweight to Santa and the like. So, gifts became bigger and more important. Saturday Night Live came up with Hanukkah Harry, as the analogue to Saint Nick, and we have the Mensch on the Bench, to equate to the Elf on the Shelf. It is, in many ways, kind of pathetic how Jews feel the need to have their own Christmas, even setting up Hanukkah Bushes. I honestly think it would have been cooler, if we Jews had not put Hanukkah on steroids, just allowed our kids to know before our Christian counterparts that Santa is a myth, and enjoyed being the only ones getting gifts at Purim. Or if people just sucked it up, and admitted that they were celebrating Christmas, which the Supreme Court has recognized has a secular component these days. But, as they say, it is what it is, and I can’t complain about getting stuff for Hanukkah and, especially, eating latkes.

My concerns about Hanukkah simply being Christmas-lite are dwarfed (elved?) by my concerns about what the holiday really means. As a kid, we were told that it was a celebration of the rededication of the Temple, which had been desecrated by pagans. We were taught to have pride in the Jewish nationalist freedom fighters who reclaimed the symbol of our religion from the Greeks, led by a hero nicknamed “Judah The Hammer”? And, technically, that isn’t wrong.

There is, however, a bigger picture. And my concerns become clear when you realize that the Maccabees, the liberators of the Temple, were actually religious fundamentalists, who rejected the more cosmopolitan Hellenizing influence of the Greeks in favor of strict adherence to Jewish law and practice and who engaged in forced conversions. In some ways, the Hellenizers were more like the assimilated Jews that I’m most comfortable with, and the Maccabees and their crowd were more like the Orthodox, who cling to the old ways (but with a side of ass-kicking). So, as a secular atheist of Jewish ancestry, I find it hard to root too hard for the Maccabees these days. (What happened to the losing side, you may ask. Scholars believe that some returned to traditional observance, but many may have been attracted to a new, upstart religion, Christianity. But we aren’t talking about that right now).

Finally, one of the big problems with Hanukkah is the lack of good music, at least as compared to Christmas. There are a couple of tunes that pretty much every member of the tribe knows, like “Oh Hanukkah” or “I Have A Little Dreydel.” My wife’s Jewish relatives have a cute song about latkes, that no one else I know has ever heard, and there are Adam Sandler’s amusing litanies of who is, and who is not, a Hanukkah celebrant. Other modern musicians have, with some success, written Hanukkah songs, but they are just not as well-known as, say, the 437th most popular Christmas song.

Which brings us to the excellent song featured above. Performed by The Klezmatics, who, for a quarter century, have played klezmer music, the folk music of Eastern European Jews, while also incorporating other music, it arose from a project in which, like Billy Bragg and Wilco, they were given access to Woody Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics. Turns out, Woody wrote a bunch of Hanukkah songs. His second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia (Arlo and Nora’s mom), was Jewish, and her mother, Aliza, was a well-known Yiddish poet. In 1942, Woody and family moved to Brooklyn, and he became involved in the Coney Island Jewish community, writing numerous Jewish-themed songs, including enough Hanukkah tunes for a whole album. “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” is, for the most part, a happy, joyous song (although like most of Jewish history, the happiness is tempered by tragedy), and in its counting of the lights of the menorah is sort of reminiscent of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” if shorter and less annoying, as well as the quite good spiritual “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” (also known as "Born in Bethlehem").  

Proving that it is hard to discuss Non-Christmas Holiday Songs, without discussing Christmas Songs.