Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Weep in Heavenly Peace

I'm writing this post mainly in response to all the anti-Christmas music wharrgarbl going on in my Facebook news feed these days.

Ever since 2002 or so, I have made it a habit to bring my guitar to my 7th grade English Oral Communication classes during the week before Christmas and sing a selection of Christmas songs. The program I have followed more or less from the beginning consists of:
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas. The Japanese are very much familiar with this 16th century English carol, and the kids often sing along, but only the very first part. They don't know the rest at all, particularly the thing about bringing figgy pudding right now. I use this song to introduce the centuries-old British custom of "wassailing". (The kinder and gentler American equivalent is called "caroling".)
  • The Wassailing Song. (Known as "Here We Come A-Caroling" in the USA.) As long as I'm talking about wassailing, I might as well do this 17th century English number, too. It has always been one of my personal favorites. However, being non-British, I only know the first verse by heart. That's still more than my Japanese audience; this song is almost completely unknown here. Actually, I've been caroling many times in the US and have always loved it, but I'd still like to try traditional English wassailing someday. The "wassailing bowl", which was usually filled with a mixture of ale and mead, sounds like a nice reward for a wish and a song or two.
  • Jingle Bells. This 19th century American song is a well-known favorite just about anywhere you go, and my students recognize it immediately. However, they're always shocked to find out that it's not really a Christmas song! (It was originally written for Thanksgiving and wound up getting transplanted.) The Japanese version of the lyrics is about Santa Claus, after all! When I translate the first two verses of the original American version for the students, some of them actually look like their bubble has been burst. They're also surprised at my energetic (and even raucous) way of singing the song. It's still good fun for everyone.
  • Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I always make it a point to contrast the serious-yet-not nature of traditional English carols with their just-plain-fun American descendants. At the same time, I draw attention to the fact that some American carols seem fun and/or silly yet have an important message. The story of Rudolph was first concocted in 1939 for, of all things, a coloring book. It was made into a song about ten years later. (The first and most famous recording was made by singing cowboy Gene Autry in 1949.) Kids here in Japan are quite familiar with this song, but don't seem to realize what it's really about. Bullying, and the suicides that tend to follow it, are a serious problem in Japan and a current hot topic. This song gives me a convenient chance for a bit of moralizing...that the kids usually shut up and listen to.
  • Stille Nacht (Silent Night). When I first came to Japan back in 1990, it was more than a year before I was able to make a visit back to Oregon. That trip was to happen during the winter holidays, which made it even more special. I was very openly excited about the fact that I was going to be home for Christmas. My coworkers at Kashima High School, however, kept looking at each other and shaking their heads. When I finally asked what was up, one of the English teachers said, "I'm sure you can find your date here in Japan! Why do you need to go back?" What, I wondered. Find my "date"? Confused, I asked for an explanation, which made all of them confused. You see, in Japan, as well as most Buddhist countries, Christmas has come to have a mainly romantic theme. (More like a winter sex festival, actually.) If you're a teenager or adult who is not yet married (and sometimes even if you are married...to someone else), you are OBLIGED to go on a date for Christmas...preferably finishing it in a hotel room. The problem is that THE JAPANESE FIRMLY BELIEVE THAT THAT'S THE WAY CHRISTMAS IS CELEBRATED EVERYWHERE. (I even saw a "Christmas special" on TV here once in which an image of the Nativity was superimposed over a scene in which a couple was having sex in a cheap hotel room! I'm not the most religious person in the world, but I just about threw my TV through the window!) Sentimentalist that I tend to be with regard to Christmas, I was outraged, and I explained that, where I come from, Christmas tends to be more of a family-oriented and/or religious affair like the Japanese New Year. My Japanese coworkers figured I was either lying or nuts! "After all," the English teacher continued, "the number one Christmas song is very clearly about romance!" "Silent Night?" I asked. "NO!" retorted the English teacher like I was the biggest idiot in the galaxy. "LAST CHRISTMAS!!!" I...just about...died...laughing. First of all, it's not even really a Christmas song. Second of all, I totally loathed WHAM! in my college days! Ever since that incident, I have always made a big point of making sure my students understand that the official number one Christmas song in the world has long been and is still "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night), that heartwarming song written in turn-of-the-19th-century Austria by a priest and a school principal, originally for performance on guitar since the church organ was broken. It is also a sentimental favorite of mine...one that tends to make me feel especially homesick, so I sometimes have to fight to keep from choking up when I perform it.
Actually, as it turned out, it had that effect on someone else. I've performed this program set several dozen times already and have gotten various reactions from my student (and sometimes teacher) audiences. I didn't expect what happened this year, however. In one of my classes, one which was reacting very positively to my performance, my closing rendition of "Stille Nacht" moved one boy to tears. His crying was obvious and noticeable enough to set the other kids, especially the girls, into fits of laughter afterward. What's really amazing is that the boy is a rugby jock! What's the number one Christmas song? As far as I'm concerned, there is no doubt in my mind.

Merry Christmas, everybody! Keep your wassailing bowls ready near the fire!

5 Comments:

  • Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family, Moody!

    p.s: last week, we had our Christmas school celebration and Silent Night was sung in 4 different languages (Indonesian, English, Chinese and German).

    By Blogger Selba, at 6:25 PM  

  • That is a nice mix of music. Sometimes peer pressure is about the stupidest thing on Earth. This is one of those times.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 5:46 AM  

  • MM, best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 6:33 PM  

  • When I was little, I knew "Silent Night", "Jingle Bells"and "Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We sang them in Japanese. And later, I knew English version of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" from Yamazaki's (confectionery company) CM song.
    I didn't know anything about the birth of baby Jesus. Christmas was just the day when Santa Claus gives presents to good children, ate Christmas cake and decorated Christmas trees.
    Perhaps the idea of "Romantic" Japanese Christmas is just for young couples who are influenced by trendy TV dramas.
    Happy holidays and wish you a very happy new year!
    -K-

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:22 PM  

  • Had a good laugh reading this rendition... I envy your ability to create music as I am totally hopeless in these things... belated xmas and happy new year to you and your loved ones...

    By Blogger Lrong, at 8:21 PM  

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