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This opinion article was first published on CLUAS in December 2005

CLUAS Opinion

What Pop Music Can Teach Us About The Spirit Of Christmas...

Santa GuitarJules Jackson takes a moment to ponder the power of pop music's message when it comes to evoking the true spirit of Christmas...


I was driving home the other night to the missus, listening to Rufus Wainwright's "Spotlight on Christmas", and it struck me that this simple song, originally recorded for a MOJO Magazine Christmas themed CD, had more to say about the core truths of Jesus Christ and Christmas than anything I've heard from the Roman Catholic Church in quite some time. In the song Rufus reminds us not to, "Forget Jesus, Mary, and Joseph / Once were a family poor but rich in hope" and that, "What kept them above / Is unconditional love", before asking the listener that, "For these twelve days / Put the measuring away / Cause it's Christmas".  Try telling that to the Vatican.

"...it thus falls to practitioners of "cheap music" to remind us of the higher ideals of human existence..."
At a time when the major world religions appear more concerned with propagating doctrines of hatred, division, bigotry, segregation and violence, it thus falls to practitioners of what Noel Coward once memorably termed, "cheap music", to remind us of the higher ideals of human existence. Lennon once wrote in "Merry Christmas (War is Over)", that, "The world is so wrong".  He was so right. Just take a look at Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya and large tracts of Africa. In those places, war could be over if we wanted it but we appear not to. Like Bono, in the song "Yahweh", "I'm still waiting for the dawn"; I'm still waiting for my soul to sing and I'm still praying that my hands won't make fists. Although David Bowie and Bing Crosby are a little more upbeat, "Peace on Earth, can it be? / Years from now, perhaps we'll see".  I think we will because, on Christmas Day 1914, British and German soldiers fighting in the trenches in Flanders chose to put down their rifles and instead play a football game together on what had been, a few hours previously, a bloody battlefield. It was an incident immortalised by Paul McCartney in the video to his song "Pipes of Peace", a clip that sums up what Christmas can and should be about.

Another songwriter who has something positive to say about Christmas, partly because he was born on December 25th 1957, is Shane McGowan. In his classic song, "Fairytale of New York", he reminds us that even though life can be a dark experience; as it is for the duo stuck in the drunk tank on Christmas Eve, Christmas is still a season of great hope promising, "Better times / When all our dreams come true".  Likewise, Midge Ure and Bob Geldof reminded us that, "At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade", before asking us to throw our arms around the world, to spread a smile of joy, to feed the world.

"Love, faith, hope, forgiveness and charity; the true values of Christmas which we find in so many songs in the popular canon...."
In Randy Newman's Apartheid era satirical song "Christmas in Capetown", we are presented with a portrait of an Afrikaner, living a luxurious lifestyle made possible by an immoral political system, and yet he is full of disquiet. When an English girl who is staying with him starts talking about, "about the poor n*gg*rs all the time / It's a real disgrace, she says", he tells her to go home to her own, "miserable country", but he still admits to himself that things don't seem as good as they once were, the beer doesn't taste the same, as if the feast of the Nativity throws into stark relief the dreadful inequalities all around him, before he asks rhetorically, "What are we gonna do, blow up the whole damn country?", for he knows deep in his heart that the evil of Apartheid cannot continue to exist. 

One track that makes me think of Christmas is the fine version of "Good King Wenceslas" by blues singer Peter Green from his album the "I Got the Blues for Christmas".  His jaunty, bluesy arrangement of this timeless carol; telling the story of a kind hearted king who comes to the aid of a poor man he sees struggling to collect winter fuel in the snow by bringing him gifts of food, wine and firewood, has a special poignancy especially when you witness, as I did last Friday night on South King Street, homeless people sleeping in doorways as, just feet away from them, more fortunate citizens drank, smoked and partied outside a variety of glitzy bars and night clubs. In those circumstances, the song makes us realise that King Wenceslas is not just a mythic figure from the past but a necessary person in our society today, a person that we must become ourselves for, "You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing".  It is a theme that James Brown takes up in his wonderfully funky, "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto" when he says to the Man in Red, "I'm begging you Santa Claus / Go straight to the ghetto / If anyone wanna know / Tell him James Brown told you".  Brown even tells Santa exactly who the children of humble circumstances are when he sings, "Leave a toy for Johnny / Leave a dog for Mary /
Leave something pretty for Donnie / And don't forget about Gary
".

Love, faith, hope, forgiveness and charity; these are the true values of Christmas and they are values we find in so many songs in the popular canon. No wonder that more and more people are turning away from the bible and towards the i-pod. I can understand that. I often ponder the true depth of what Bob Marley is saying when he sings, "How long shall they kill our prophets / While we stand aside and look? / Some say it's just a part of it / We've got to fulfil de book".  I certainly prefer Marley's view of faith to the perverse, sickening version presently being exported from America to the Middle East, evangelism down the barrel of a gun, or the version which condemns the eternal souls of an entire section of the community on the basis of their sexual identity, or the version which instructs young people to strap explosives to their chests and detonate them in buses, tube trains, restaurants and nightclubs.

Now, I don't know what the question is, but love is the answer. It may not be a victory march, it may even be a cold and broken hallelujah, but it's all you need, and you know it's true. And that's what Christmas means to me, it is the season of love and goodwill to all mankind. So, to finish, it only remains for me to say that, whatever you believe in, however you live your life and whomever you choose to love, I want to wish you and yours a radical Christmas and a bitchin' New Year.

Peace, love and hope to y'all in 2006.

Jules Jackson

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