Monday, December 23, 2013

"Rumors are Flying All Over Galilee These Days" - A Word of Praise for an Unconventional Christmas Carol

Every December we seem to have the same discussion about our universal "love/hate relationship" for Christmas songs.  For every earnest list of "best Christmas songs" online, there are at least as many "Christmas songs we hate" lists as well as "Christmas songs we love to hate" lists (as well as a handful of "Christmas songs that are surprisingly tolerable!" lists).  The derision for "Christmas songs" as a genre probably stems from gross repetition - the fact that, generation after generation, we're subjected to the same dozen or so songs played every hour, on the hour, as we're stuck in line buying wrapping paper at Walgreens.  But that just begs the question of why such a small universe of songs are deemed acceptable for the holiday season.

If you ask me, the problem is that our culture has such a narrow conception of what are appropriate topics for holiday music to discuss.  Yeah, yeah, Christmas is a glorious time full of miracles, Jesus is the Son of God undoubtedly, and everyone should just get along already.  Yet, surely such a supposedly momentous, singular event as the birth of God's only son to a virgin should inspire art and music that is more compelling and sophisticated than a series of glorified campfire ditties.

As I've written before, I don't think our culture handles spiritual expression in art particularly well if it goes any deeper than "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so", and I attribute this shortcoming directly to the hijacking and commodification of spirituality by mainstream Christianity.  The problem is captured pretty well by this observation from the estimable in its breakdown of Vampire Weekend's  "Hey Ya" (itself probably the best song about religious exploration in decades):
These days, unless you have a tailored religious message, it’s very hard to be an openly religious artist — no matter how much you’re attracted to the idea.
The truth in this statement is painfully clear when you consider that nearly all "Christmas songs" fit into one of two (maybe three) categories -- painfully earnest, celebratory songs ("Joy to the World", "Hark the Herald Angel Sings") and utterly frivolous, jokey songs ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth").  A subcategory of the latter type are the sardonic or outright cynical "anti-Christmas" songs, that tend to have very little to add to the discussion beyond antagonism for its own sake.  Subtract out love songs that do little more than name-drop Christmas and Walgreens would have nothing left to play over their speakers during the holidays ... well, almost nothing, which brings me to the topic this post below the fold.

Back in 2007, Canadian indie rock super-group The New Pornographers released an EP featuring "The Spirit of Giving" off of their Challengers album that included two B-sides.  In keeping with the holiday theme of the A-track, the two additional tracks name-check Jesus' parents:  "Joseph, Who Understood" and "Arms of Mary" -- though, only the first of these tracks seems to have anything to do with the Nativity Story.

The lyrics to "Joseph, Who Understood" are quite straightforward, which is something that can rarely be said about a New Pornographers song.  The song recounts Joseph's reaction to Mary's claims that she has been impregnated by God himself and will soon give birth to the Messiah.  The opening lines paint a vivid picture of Joseph's predicament:
Rumors are flying
All over Galilee these days
And Mary, I'm trying
To be cool
When my friends walk by them
They cannot look at me
In the eye
Baby, I'm trying
There's a lot to unpack here.  To start with the very first line, we're told of "rumors", which may be a reference either to rumors of the coming birth of the Messiah or (more likely) rumors of the salacious type. By the time we get through this verse, it's pretty clear that it's the latter.  Perhaps the rumors are that Mary got herself knocked up by some random guy, or that they engaged in premarital sex.  Or perhaps the rumors do concern Mary's wild rantings about angels impregnating her.  In any event, we know that Joseph is in a pretty awkward spot ... and yet he's also "trying."  He's a stand up guy, trying to do right by his fiancee (when he might just as well have left her to be stoned as a unmarried pregnant woman).

Then we get to the refrain, and we understand Joseph's true predicament:
You're asking me to believe in too many things
Here is the crux of the conflict, and a perspective that we don't get from any other Christmas carol out there -- at least none that I've ever heard.  From "We Three Kings" following the Christmas Star to the "Little Drummer Boy" following in their wake, Christmas songs are premised on certainty.  The birth of the Christ is a predestined, prophesized, foregone conclusion and everyone's on board, right?

Well, Joseph has more to say about that:
I know this child
Was sent here to heal our broken time
And some things are bigger
Than we know
When somehow you find out
That you are step-father
To a god
Well, Mary, that's life
Here it seems to me that Joseph is bordering on condescending to Mary.  "Yeah, yeah, sure, Mary.  Son of God, whatever you say sweetie."  Yet there's humility in his words, too ("some things are bigger than we know"), and a kind of begrudging acceptance of his fate ("Well, Mary, that's life").  Whether or not Joseph is merely acquiescing to Mary's "delusions" or actually embracing them as his own, it's hard to say.  The next line may give us a clue, though:
You're asking me to believe in so many things.
Note the subtle change-up there?  We went from "too many things" to "so many things", as if Joseph went from refusing outright to accept all that Mary was saying to simply being exasperated yet trying his best to digest it all.

Then the heartbreak (and the sacrilege) kicks in:
Oh Mary, is he mine?
Mary, is he mine?
Tell me, is he?
Here, Joseph is at his most human.  The father-to-be who just wants to know the truth.  He wants to know if the child is really his. We're suddenly back among the "rumors flying around Galilee", and hiding right below the surface of those lines are the kind of sacrilege that are anathema to the sanitized holiday experience that's going to keep Pat Robertson from picketing your department stores.

First, these lines imply that Joseph and Mary had had sex.  How else could it possibly be Joseph's?  Second, there is the possibility that Joseph himself suspects that Mary was sleeping around.  He's still not fully on board yet with her account of how it all went down, so it must be a possibility in his mind.

Now, if you want to know why I think this may be the greatest Christmas song out there, it's all in the next refrain:
Now, Mary, he is mine
Mary, he is mine
Joseph, having faced the rumors from the townsfolk who won't look him in the eye anymore, having faced the possibility that his wife-to-be is either (a) certifiably insane or (b) putting the entire fate of humanity on his shoulders, willfully decides to put all his doubts aside and embrace the child as his own.  What could possibly be a more life-affirming, holiday appropriate message than that?

It's a Christmas carol told without a single miracle, starring a Mary who is at best a ranting fool and at worst a lying trollop,  and with no guarantee that Joseph is making the right decision in the end.  The final lines don't reference angels heard on high or a new era of peace, just Joseph's final lamentation that there is no certainties in this life.  Just "so many things" that he has to believe now in order to stay true to his promise to Mary.

On top of all that, there's no denying that it's also an incredibly catchy tune that shouldn't be at all out of place in a holiday track list.  Granted, it's a relatively obscure B-side released by a relatively unknown indie band, but that's ultimately not the point.  The point is that there's no reason that Christmas music can't be this emotionally and spiritually sophisticated, provided that we can free ourselves from the self-appointed arbiters of what is and is not appropriate "Christian" music.

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