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The War on Jingle Bells

Time for mistletoe and holly. Also, the perennial Music Teacher Question: What about Santa?

How to handle holiday performances and musical literature with nominally religious origins is one of those evergreen topics for the Music Educators National Conference. The MENC has produced some very useful guidelines for incorporating music with religious origins (which includes a very large percentage of music written before 1800 --and many landmark works across musical history). I particularly like this quote, from the MENC guidelines:

If it is possible to study Communism without indoctrination or to examine the ills of contemporary society without promoting the seeds of revolution, then it must also be possible to study sacred music (with performance-related activities) without parochialistic attitudes and sectarian points of view.

Just because the MENC has a scholarly, legally defensible template for selecting school music materials doesn't mean that music teachers are off the hook. This is clearly a local issue--although figuring out how to handle it equitably and peacefully may be a taxing exercise in democratic citizenship. This is, however, why we have schools boards in America, and why we might consider being cautious before endorsing a national curriculum, in a country as huge and diverse as ours.

In my first year as a music teacher, a colleague told me that she felt any hint of the holidays in my December concert was "illegal" and inappropriate. Warned, I stuck to neutral, non-Christmas music, closing with a halting rendition of Sleigh Ride. (I am profoundly grateful that all recordings of my first efforts as a middle school band director were done on reel-to-reel and are probably in a landfill somewhere.) After the concert, what I heard from parents was "I wish there had been more Christmas music!"

Now--I taught in a place where I could wind up my December concerts with the Rockettes and a live nativity scene and the crowd would eat it up. It took some time to develop a rich repertoire of music, appropriate for the season, that lent itself to teaching important musical concepts and sent our audiences home satisfied.

What I am endorsing is not majority rule, a situation where a predominance of Christians (or Jews, or Muslims) in a school would open the gates for sacred concerts in public schools. Only this: human beings everywhere celebrate seasonal, national and religious holidays, and leeching the study of these traditions and cultural markers out of school curricula can make schooling even less relevant and flavorless than it already is.

I admit--this is a tricky business. In the solutions music teachers devise to skirt music with sacred origins in December, however, many opportunities for teaching worthy musical content and cultural context are lost. It is ironic that, in a month when you can hear For unto Us a Child is Born in the dog food aisle of the supermarket, we are worrying about whether it's OK to be roasting chestnuts over an open fire in the school gymnasium.

The line between sacred and secular gets very blurry here. Music teachers who resort to Jolly Old Saint Nicholas (a musically lame little six-note tune) thinking they're safe by avoiding What Child Is This? (an opportunity to teach modal tonalities, as well as a lesson on how tunes are sometimes connected to lyrics centuries after they're created) may not be doing their students any favors.

And wasn't Saint Nicholas a saint?

Thoughtful teachers express empathy for children whose family culture or religious traditions are in the minority. I believe it is the dominant culture's responsibility in a democracy to show respect for other belief systems, rather than ignoring the fact that our culture is saturated in a commercialism that has little to do with redemption or piety.

Teachers can model this cautious cultural exploration and help kids understand where the music that drenches the airwaves this time of year comes from--and why music has been so important to all people, in all times.

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