Choir school alumnus Matt Dusk sings with St. Michael’s Choir School as they rehearse for their annual Christmas concert at Massey Hall. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Opinion: Christmas doesn’t need any jingle

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  • December 8, 2016

Where I am able to organize things — in my parish, at the chaplaincy — we sing Advent hymns in Advent. But otherwise, Christmas concerts are the order of the day by early December. And so it was that last Saturday I had the privilege of attending the annual Christmas concert of St. Michael’s Choir School in the afternoon at Massey Hall, and then the Christmas pageant (“Gaudy” to employ the local nomenclature) at Massey College in the evening.

Both were immensely enjoyable and gave me occasion to think about traditions and how they convey the great, capital “T” tradition of the faith.

Over the years, I have had the blessing of listening to the choir school many times, usually at St. Michael’s Cathedral, most recently at the sacred music concert for its rededication in September. They never disappoint and it is always a matter of Catholic pride to hear them sing. I had though, to date, never been to the annual Christmas concert at Massey Hall.

It is a true cultural service and a moment of Catholic culture. The choir boys were excellent, and excellence in the prevailing educational culture of mediocrity is itself a remote form of evangelization. More proximate evangelization, though, lies in introducing the audience to our treasury of sacred music, from “Hodie Christus natus est” and “O Magnum Mysterium” to the rousing hymns “The First Noel” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The choir school puts on a proper Christmas concert.

This year the choir school was joined by featured guest Matt Dusk, an alumnus who has had some recording success in both Canada and Poland. Dusk is a crooner in the tradition of Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé, complete with fashionable suits and the standard patter.

He did, as such crooners do, the up-tempo versions of “Sleigh Ride Together” and “The Christmas Song” which are meant to sound original, though all crooners do them exactly the same way. It had been a while since I had heard those truly awful songs all the way through, as when I am at home I would normally change the channel or station while the chestnuts are still roasting and before Jack Frost starts nipping at the nose.

The audience certainly enjoyed Dusk, but I found it faintly embarrassing to have such banalities on the same stage as the choir school. He has a fine voice and could certainly have sung pieces more about Christmas and less about snow.

Wherein lies something of a lesson. The “winter classics” that have nothing to do with Christmas — “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” — are thin traditions, conveying light sentiment and doing so in a most predictable way. Contrariwise, “Hodie Christus natus est” can be arranged differently so that while it remains something fixed, it is also something fresh, and because it has something to say, it retains its power. The choir school sang a setting by alumnus Kola Owolabi; they could have sung Vaughan Williams’ setting and it would have been genuinely different yet in the same tradition.

Traditions that convey the same capital “T” tradition of the faith are much more creative and enduring than those invented traditions — Rudolph! — that have nothing to say and drearily say it the same stale way, no matter how much huffing and puffing are put into making it seem new.

As delightful as it is to play the role of “seasonal” curmudgeon, I am no such thing. My favourite moment of any Christmas concert is “The Little Drummer Boy,” a ditty from 1941 that has been sung in an astonishing array of genuinely new arrangements. The choir school did the Bing Crosby/David Bowie version.

“The Little Drummer Boy” is a brilliant example of a new tradition inserted into that larger Tradition, as it presents a beautiful, innocent piety. I have never imagined myself on a sleigh ride together with anyone, but I have often thought of myself in the plight of the little boy with his drum. What can I give to the Baby Jesus? I don’t have gold, frankincense or myrrh. Will Mary help me to give Him a gift? She will.

Mary nodded contains immensities within it, a veritable summary of the entire Gospel from the Annunciation to Cana to Calvary to Pentecost.

In the evening at Massey College, a nondenominational institution that fits comfortably in the secular liberal campus environment, traditions are maintained as goods in themselves. And so the pageant ended with all present singing “Adeste Fideles” entirely in Latin, just as it opened with “Once in David’s Royal City,” just as it is always the first hymn for Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge.

Is it the case that many of those singing “Adeste Fideles” cannot mean what the words say? Surely yes, but it doesn’t lose its value for that reason. Traditions in all faiths convey more than those who hand them sometimes intend.

“Adeste Fideles” at Massey College participates, even unwittingly, in the great Tradition in a way that “Silver Bells” (mercifully absent at Massey Hall) cannot.

The choristers of St. Michael’s Choir School sung for Him. Mary nodded. And smiled.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.conviviummagazine.ca.)

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  • Jeremy Tingle

    As a Grade 12 student at the Choir School, I could not agree more with the sentiment of this article. In a day when Christmas is being hypercommercialized/secularized, we should be protecting our Catholic tradition rather than caving to the very degradation we claim to oppose, just to "sell tickets"

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  • Mike Evans

    I started at the choir school in 1992 and graduated in 2003. Massey Hall and tour concerts have always included a combination of sacred and secular music, with an emphasis on the sacred.

    I would also add that the alumni referred to are Matt Dusk (not Rusk) and Kola (not Kowo) Owolabi.

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