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Ditching Your Holiday Hits For Handel’s ‘Messiah’ Connects You To The Past And Future

Unlike pop hits, ‘Messiah’ is a test of endurance for performers and audiences alike. And it’s worth every second. 

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“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire,” said Gustav Mahler, the Romantic composer, paraphrasing St. Thomas More. Last weekend, my choir director shared a similar sentiment as we prepared to take the stage to perform Handel’s “Messiah.” As Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” tops Billboard’s Holiday 100 and department stores pump ubiquitous Christmas pop through speakers, yearly performances of “Messiah” offer respite from saccharine holiday nostalgia. “Messiah,” which tells the scriptural story of salvation, is a tradition that manages to preserve fire.

Invocations of “tradition” at this time of year bring to mind carols crooned by Josh Groban — or, if tastes run older, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Dean Martin. If these songs preserve fire, it’s a comfortable, domesticated flame that flickers uncertainly. “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” drip with emotion, evoking snow-dusted memories that Thomas Kinkade might paint. They’re beautiful songs, and they bring beautiful things to mind, but they fail to address the central longings of Christmas, settling instead for an easily commercialized nostalgia.

The fire worth preserving lies further beyond the greatest generation, found in works like those of Handel, as well as the choral works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and even John Rutter. Classical Christmas music suggests that perhaps we should long for something older and richer than the post-war America of our parents and grandparents. 

Tradition preserves a fire that, rightly understood, defies sputtering candles. This fire blazes, bonfire-like, too grand to understand, too bold to approach, too majestic for pop music to capture. It is a fire not stolen from the gods but given to us by God. 

Perhaps we should cling to our cultural inheritance instead of exchanging it for a constant cycle of seasonal singles. Each year, pop artists remake tradition in their own image with albums filled with covers of standard carols. The wonder of “Messiah” and other music like it, however, is the resistance to a market ideology that demands constant newness while stifling genuine creativity. 

When performing “Messiah,” musicians participate in a lineage of sound unchanged since the 18th century. In an era of auto-tune and synth, the baroque orchestra sounds almost otherworldly. And yet, it is a work of such delicate balance and attention to the human voice that soloists need no microphone to be heard over the strains of strings, oboes, and organs. Lasting more than three hours when sung straight through, the oratorio is rarely performed in full. Unlike sugary pop hits, which clock in around three or four minutes, “Messiah” is a test of endurance for performers and audiences alike. And it’s worth every second. 

There is a flame, wild and untamed, in the gymnastic figuration of Handel’s arias, but the oratorio’s compelling power comes from the story it tells. In the work’s opening numbers, a soloist begs, “But who may abide the day of His coming? And who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire” — no roasting chestnuts here. 

Performers propel the audience through the drama of the annunciation, the birth of Christ, his rejection and crucifixion, the resurrection, and the proclamation of the Gospel by the early church. Drawing upon well-known Scripture passages, Handel crafts a massive meditation on the true meaning of Christmas, which rightfully belongs in the grand context of salvation history.

The beloved “Hallelujah” chorus, often treated as a Christmas song, resists sentimentalization. The chorus directly follows an aria that puts to music the text of Psalm 2:9: “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” In the arc of the oratorio, the “Hallelujah” chorus celebrates the triumph of Christ’s second coming after the world’s rejection of the Gospel. 

Presents, bows, and kisses under the mistletoe — though still good things — pale in comparison to the tale of salvation, which generations have passed as a torch through centuries of darkness. “Messiah” and other classical choral Christmas works express the “reason for the season” with reverent revelry, escaping trite Christmas tropes through beauty in both form and content.

Centuries after Handel, Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer — or, more accurately, the preserver — of several choral Christmas carols, rightly feared that the 20th century’s industrialization would spell the end of a rich heritage of English country songs. Now, the songs once sung in families, churches, and villages can be heard only at concerts or on obscure cassette tapes and CDs. 

These are fears that we, too, should have. Fun and festive though their music may be, Top 40 artists sing songs of ash, unable to create anything worthy of preservation. And yet, despite their obvious emptiness, these pop earworms set the tone for each coming Christmas season. Meghan Trainor’s upbeat 2022 hit with Pentatonix reminds listeners that “sugarplums dance and reindeer fly, and Santa always reads your letters.” Every December, Justin Bieber’s lyrical hit “Mistletoe” reappears — he’ll be under the mistletoe “With you, shawty, with you / With you, shawty, with you.” And Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” reveals hope for permanence in the midst of hookup culture and a desire for love that lasts, even as Grande can’t “tell if this is just a fling.” 

Hit singles come and go each year, and they’re lots of fun while they last. But we possess a cultural inheritance of music full of flame if only we can remember to pass it along to our children more effectively than our parents passed it to us. We would do well to remember that while ash cannot endure, fire can only endure if we tend to it.

The stories we tell and the songs we sing matter, as does the manner in which we speak and sing them. And in a culture where hostile ideologies wage war on all that Christmas celebrates — home, hearth, and family, not to mention Christ and those who follow him — we would do well to recall the fire that we seek to preserve through our fidelity to tradition. 

Last weekend, perhaps inadvertently, my choir director shared this perspective: Historicism cannot diminish Handel’s “Messiah” because it is both a product of its age and a timeless classic — to perform it is to participate in generations of preserving fire. 

Christmas is a season of nostalgia, but it is, more appropriately, a season of longing. It is not a return to ash but a renewing of our vision of the pilgrimage toward the bright light of heaven. Through music that reveals the creative genius of man directed toward the glory of God, we gain a glimpse of that first vital flame — the Light of the World written of in the prologue to John’s Gospel. It is a Light that cannot be domesticated with jazz combos and sleigh bells; it comes to set the world afire, and how I wish it were already ablaze!


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