Two pious cousins were at a performance of Handel's Messiah, listening to the choir sing All We Like Sheep. After the umpteenth repetition of the title phrase, one cousin whispered to the other, "I like sheep too, in moderation."
Musicians who know all too well how Handel's Redeemer liveth may hear that chorus more harshly. Like sheep, they're inclined to mutter, we've been flocking to the same Christmas oratorio every year since it was written, in haste, in 1742.
Can't we have something else? Didn't anyone in the whole long history of notated music (12 centuries, more or less) write anything that can compete with the No. 1 smash hit of classical Christmas music?
Choirs and concert societies struggle every year to convince their public that Britten's Ceremony of Carolsor Vaughan Williams's Hodie are just as much fun as Messiah. Many promote their finds as a break from the routine, which implies that once the break is over, the routine will naturally reassert itself.
Besides Handel, however, the only blue-chip classical composer to produce a major Christmas piece was Bach, whose six-part Christmas Oratorio has never had anything like the exposure given to Messiah. Bach's work was intended to be performed over 12 days, within the framework of Lutheran church services, and never feels quite right in a concert hall.
Messiah has no liturgical function, and never did. Its first performances took place in a theatre, as a way of raising money for a Dublin foundlings' home. Handel was criticized for sullying sacred texts by having people sing them outside a house of God. But he was only foreshadowing the migration, two centuries later, of Christmas music from the church to the mall.
Many composers of the past, even those who specialized in sacred music, didn't pay nearly as much mind to Christmas as we do. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a leading church composer during the reign of Louis XIV, wrote almost 500 sacred works, fewer than 10 of which are directly related to Christmas. The liturgical calendar was just too big, and Easter too important, to lavish much attention on the Nativity. Bach wrote three Passions for Easter, and even Handel always performed Messiah during the Easter season.
To this day, Easter is a much bigger public event in Europe and Africa than it is in North America. I once spent a Christmas in Seville, a deeply Catholic city where normal life is suspended for days around Easter week. That Christmas, however, looked like any normal Saturday, with shops open and people going about their business.
Dramatic classics about the Nativity are rare because the story is relatively thin. It has nothing to compare to the betrayal, violence and transcendence of the Passion. The star twinkles, the magi arrive with their gifts, the shepherds gawk, the baby is born.
Aside from Handel, the only one to make a success of that tale was Gian Carlo Menotti, whose Amahl and the Night Visitors fudged the problem by focusing on an invented side-story about a crippled boy whose hungry mother gets caught trying to steal some of the magi's treasure (she's forgiven; he's miraculously cured). Menotti's work was commissioned not by a church but by NBC, which broadcast it on Christmas Eve, 1951, and for several years after.
As for Christmas carols, those that survive from medieval times were originally processional verses sung to any number of possible tunes (the processional function lingers on, barely, in the tradition of singing carols door to door). Their use seemed to be dying out by the early 19th century, a passage duly mourned by urban sophisticates who had been taught to value disappearing folklore.
But the carol's date with destiny still lay ahead, and when it arrived it was determined by commerce, not ritual. The carol as we know it, with an invariable tune and straightforward chordal accompaniment, was the invention of Victorian music publishers. They traded on the antiquity of their wares, while manipulating texts and music to suit contemporary tastes. The demand for carols became permanent with the proliferation of the Dickensian Christmas ideal, in which the happy family gathers around a blazing hearth to sing the good old songs of yore.
Not all songs known as carols are ancient, but like hymns, they have a way of obliterating authorship. It's likely that few who bawl out Joy to the World every year are aware that the tune is by Handel, just as most people don't associate Onward, Christian Soldiers with the composer of H.M.S Pinafore.
Modern pop merged with the carol tradition the moment crooners such as Bing Crosby began singing O Little Town of Bethlehem (which like many carols is actually a hymn, written in 1868 by a Boston preacher and his organist). The carol's main influence on subsequent song-writing was to encourage an overlay of solemnity on syrupy standards such as White Christmas and Little Drummer Boy.
Many more recent Christmas pop songs are anti-carols, such as the Pogues' Fairytale of New York, a 1987 ballad about Yule among the down-and-out that topped a recent British poll of Christmas pop favourites.
The proliferation of novelty tunes such as Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer suggest that Christmas as a public event has become so thoroughly commercial as to defy attempts to treat it non-ironically. Those who try end up producing songs that sound like advertising jingles, such as Jessica Simpson's current radio hit What Christmas Means to Me.
The prospect for excellent new seasonal music in the classical tradition is no more encouraging. Present-day appeals to the wonder of the Nativity are hard to make outside a church setting. Inside the churches, new Christmas music tends to sound as dusty as everything else written for church use by the likes of John Rutter, whose unparalleled eminence within the pews still wasn't quite enough for him to avoid padding out his several Christmas recordings with new arrangements of old hymns and carols.
But it doesn't really matter. The Hallelujah Chorus and the Silent Night fulfill a function that probably no other music could, which is to help us span the bathetic gulf between the simple Christian holy day and the carnival of consumption that surrounds it. The ritual that has leaked away from Christmas as a religious event is all invested in the now-invariable trappings, including music that we may love or hate, but that will never leave us alone at Christmas time.