Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Holiday Christmas Cheer

Okay, so Dean Dad did a snarky post on Christmas music he hates, and lots of comments were made about Christmas carols and other music that drive folks batty! I replied to the post with my obscene (Jewish) love of Christmas music, but also added some additional commentary about being picky *where* I listen to the music. Nobody picked up on that thread, so I decided to come back and blog about it here.

At my very large, public university, and at almost all prior large public universities where I have worked or studied, the university choirs, bands, orchestras, etc. have participated in holiday concerts. I am okay with this in some ways, but not when they call them "Vespers." While the pieces performed tend to be the same (Handel's Messiah, Christmas Carols, and other sacred music, with a secular or Hanukkah song thrown in for "balance"), it makes a large difference to me when someone uses a religious term for a concert at a publicly-funded school.

Vespers has a distinctly religious connotation. Even Wikipedia notes that:
Vespers is the evening prayer service in the Roman Catholic, Eastern (Byzantine)
Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, liturgies of the canonical hours. The word comes
from Latin vesper, meaning "evening." The term is also in limited use in some
Protestant (especially Lutheran and Seventh-day Adventist) denominations to
describe evening services, and in some Anglican circles is used unofficially to
refer to Evening Prayer.
I run a departmentally-based mentoring program for at-risk students, one that is part of a group of programs across the university. Several of the other programs take their students to Vespers every year. Each year, I decline. Of course, my students can attend if they wish, they just won't do it as part of our group. I refuse to require students to take part in what is essentially a religious service masquerading as a "concert."

My refusal to take students has become an issue. Some faculty advisors in other departments argue that just as we expose our students to events connected to minority racial and ethnic cultures, we should encourage them to take part in this dominant (Christian) culture event. Other faculty argue that the event is truly secular, that it is an important part of campus culture, and we should all share in this university-wide event. These arguments ring hollow for me.

Perhaps had I not spent my entire life in public school choirs, singing Christian songs every December, I could believe that the dominant culture needed to be "shared" with everyone. My guess is that none of my students has missed out on this kind of cultural event; most have probably participated at one time or another.

And the secularization of religious holidays (with Santa, reindeer, snow, and so on) ultimately does not make them secular. The music shows that to be true. Actually, the music at "Vespers" concerts is decidedly religious. There is no "Grandma got run over by a reindeer" to be had. Instead, there are prayers, old and new arrangements of sacred music, and other religious accoutrements, such as candles, religious decorations, orders of service, etc.
I would urge public universities to stop holding "Vespers." If I want to introduce my students to religious music, we can go to the religiously affiliated school down the way and sit in on their services. Public schools should not hold these activities, or we should just call them concerts. I still won't require my students to attend, but I am sure you may find me there sometime...perhaps in the choir.


Irie said...

I teach at a public school. Today I talked to some of the people I work with about the problems with displaying Christmas trees and hanging stockings in the office. They looked at me like I was the Grinch.

One of my students asked why I don't play Christmas music. I told him that since I teach about the separation of church and state and actually believe in it, it would be hypocritical of me to play Christmas music. All of the kids nodded that they understood. Too bad my 8th graders *get it*, but the adults I work with don't.

Bardiac said...

I was going to say "amen," but somehow that just seemed out of place.

Totally agree. The Christian crap at public institutions drives me batty. And I, too, am willing to bet that every kid in public schools has had to sing Christmas songs in school. Total BS. Gah!

Tenured Radical said...

Well, I actually think what is interesting is that it is impossible to have the religious stuff there at all with throwing a lot of social pressures into motion about how "everyone" needs to participate. Interestingly, we at the private (formerly Methodist) Zenith have "holiday" this and "holiday" that --