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Hallo again to all.

With news all around about the battle in Gaza, it is perhaps presumptuous of us to use the word 'skirmish' to describe a conflict that does not involve weapons, but in spite of that we have been reflecting on the collateral damage of the skirmish between Christian culture and secular culture over the celebration of Christmas. There's no point in our mentioning the intense commercialization of Christmas as a time for overspending on material things; it's going to continue whether we rail against it or not.

We Three KingsThe song about the Twelve Days of Christmas has almost single-handedly kept alive the notion that Christmas is not just the last day of Advent but is a season. Fine details, such as whether the holiday is the traditional Octave of Christmas (8 days, as its name implies) or the 12 days of the song, hardly matter when merchants are already putting up their Valentine's Day decorations to goose the next round of sales. Purists and old coots know that the day after Christmas is the Feast of St Stephen, and the day after that is the Feast of St John Apostle and Evangelist. We don't know anyone who actually feasts on those feast days, except perhaps to eat copious leftovers from a Christmas meal.

We remember once overhearing at a coffee hour during Advent an earnest older teenager explaining to his grandmother that the Feast of St Stephen was that on which Good King Wenceslas looked out. This song, like the Twelve Days, is an example of how well a song can preserve tradition and cultural knowledge.

We were taught in school that in ancient days, when most people couldn't read, history was preserved through song and poem. Children would learn the words and music from their elders and would in later years teach them to their descendants. All true, but then we were taught that the invention of the printing press and the tape recorder and television made all of this obsolete; that there was no further need for ballads and epic poetry because there were now history books and documentary films made widely available, and people would read them and watch them. When ballads become films, such as Blind Harry's Wallace becoming Braveheart, the material is always shortened and modified and modernized. The quiet rubrics say 'Based on a true story.' Despite all of the modern technology, we still need ballads and epic poetry, and Christmas carols are the ballads of the Christmas story.

Our heritage of Christmas Carols is not just music, it's cultural memory. One of the greatest joys of the various Christmas liturgies is the realization that everyone there knows the songs. Well, OK, not everyone actually knows the words and melody to 'Christians awake salute the happy morn', but you'd have a hard time finding in church on Christmas Eve anyone old enough to read and write who didn't know the first verse or two to 'Joy to the World' or 'The First Noël' or 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing'.

Will that still be true in another generation? Will the young schoolchildren of 2028 stand next to their parents in church and happily sing 'Away in a Manger' while their parents whisper testily about whether it ought to be sung to Mueller or Cradle Song? We think not, simply because children are getting fewer and fewer opportunities to learn the Old Songs. It's become much less acceptable to play Christmas music in public occasions. Youth choirs learn holiday music, not The Grinch who stole ChristmasChristmas music. Radio stations play 'I'm dreaming of a white Christmas' rather than 'Angels from the Realms of Glory', and the children aren't listening to the radio in any event; they're listening on their iPods to Taylor Swift singing 'Love Story'.

Notwithstanding iPods, children really do want to learn songs. And they even manage to learn the Christmas songs that they encounter. Every modern child seems to learn the Christmas song in the Boris Karloff version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Or haven't you yet had the pleasure of hearing preteens singing 'Fah who for-aze, Dah who dor-aze, Welcome Christmas, Come this way!'? (Never mind that their parents probably sang 'Come, they told me, pa rum pum pum pum....' when they were that age.)

As we Anglicans entrench against losing our Christmas celebration to the secular world of spending and wishing one another Happy Holidays, part of that entrenchment has been to become more rigid about Christmas music during Advent, because (after all) we have to protect Advent, too. Why, hardly anyone who didn't grow up in a liturgical church even knows what Advent is, except that it's the name of a kind of calendar. We fear that the dual onslaught of the secular world's not playing or teaching religious Christmas carols and our own insistence that during Advent we stick to Advent music is going to produce, in perhaps just one more generation, a world in which no more people know the words and melody to 'O Come All Ye Faithful' than currently know 'He sat to watch o'er customs paid' (Hymn 189 in The New English Hymnal 1986).

Dear friends, as you prepare for Twelfth Night, for Three Kings Day, for Epiphany, for the end of the Christmas Octave, think about what you can do to help any children that you know learn our Christmas carols. If you don't do it, who will? And if you don't do it, perhaps you will as your consequence get to sit there in your wheelchair at the Christmas Eve service in 2028 and listen to the congregation all around you singing Romeo Spike's big hit song 'Christmas Diablo'.

See you next week. Lo! star-led chieftains, magi, Christ adoring, offer him frankincense and gold and myrrh!

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Last updated: 4 January 2009

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