Monday, December 26, 2011

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

(a.k.a. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel)


Latin and English:

Veni, veni, Emmanuel
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exsilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te Israel!

Many have sung this Latin chant over the centuries. Though it is somewhat unclear when it was written, it either comes from the 8th Century Gregorian chants, or from the 15th Century Franciscan order of nuns, according to Wikipedia. In any case, it is traditionally sung during the Advent season, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It wasn't until the 19th century that John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin translated it into English. It is a plea for Emmanuel, "God with us," to come and save us from our our bondage. Prophets such as Isaiah foretold of a Messiah who would be called Emmanuel, who would save Israel. Through the years, Israel went through bondage to Babylon and Assyria, and then later to Rome. The Jews longed for their promised Messiah to come. (Many Jews still do today.)

The first verse pleads with Emmanuel to come and ransom Israel, who is groaning in exile. The second verse asks for wisdom. The third verse asks the Lord to come, and it remembers the Law that He presented to Moses on Mt. Sinai with "majestic glory" (literal translation of the Latin). The fourth verse, from what I can tell, appears to be an appeal to God to use the shepherd's staff of Jesse (David's father) to catch the enemy (Satan and sin) and hurl him into the cavernous pit of hell. The fifth verse asks the metaphorical Key of David (Jesus was prophesied to be a descendant of David) to unlock the way to heaven and lock the way to hell. The sixth verse asks for comfort, and to get rid of the darkness of death. The last verse appeals to the King of the Nations and Redeemer of all (God) to come and save the people on earth who are slaves to sin.

Due to the challenges of translating a song into English, some of the ideas in the verses were lost or adjusted. The English lyrics must still fit in the tune and rhyme, so it is much more difficult to get a literal translation than, say, translating a book. One line I find interesting was the line Noctis depelle nebulas, Dirasque mortis tenebras in the sixth verse. The official English translation is "Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And death's dark shadow put to flight." The last two words, mortis tenebras, mean "death's darkness." Accordingly, the notes in the tune go down on the staff in the same way the meaning of the words goes downwards to the depths of dark death. So it's interesting that the English moves those words to earlier in the sentence and, with the notes going downward on the staff, has the words "put to flight."

Some of the prophecies that it mentions were fulfilled when Jesus came, "God with us", was born, lived, and gave His life as a ransom for the bondage that we had to sin. Jesus conquered death when He rose from the dead. Many Orthodox Jews who don't believe that Jesus was the Messiah are still waiting for Messiah to come and do this. However, some of the prophecies have not yet been fulfilled, and both Christians and Jews cry out for Christ to come and save us from our bondage. One day Jesus will return and conquer death once and for all. His sacrifice on the cross about 2000 years ago freed us who believe from sin, but as humans, we still suffer temptation and death. Someday that will be no more. Someday, Satan will be flung into the pit of hell where he can't torment and tempt us any more.

So with the Jews of old, I cry out to God:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Little Drummer Boy

(a.k.a. Carol of the Drum)

Carol of the Drum by The Trapp Family Singers on Grooveshark
Carol of the Drum, sung by the Trapp Family Singers

The Little Drummer Boy has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols. It is the semi-fictional story of a poor boy who has nothing but a drum, who is invited to accompany the Wise Men to see the baby Jesus in the stable. The rich men are bringing the finest of their treasuries to present to the newborn King, and this poor boy has nothing to give. He seems disappointed at first that he has nothing fit for a King to give, until he realizes that he could give the gift of music. So with Mary's permission, he jams out on the drum, with the animals keeping time. What a rocking gift! It makes Jesus smile.

I call it semi-fictional because most of the characters in the story were real, but if there was a "little drummer boy", the Bible doesn't mention him. Also, by the time the Wise Men visited Him, Jesus was no longer in the stable.

However, if it had happened (which I suppose is possible to some extent...maybe one of the shepherds had a drum), I'm sure Jesus would have loved it. Also, Jesus was very clear that we need to care for the poor and not overlook them. We are to be generous, even if we don't have much to give. Based on what Jesus said about an old lady giving all she had, sometimes gifts from people who don't have anything material to give are more valuable than those given out of a fraction of someone's possessions, due to the sacrifice involved. Also, even if we don't have anything material to give, we can always give our talents. While the story of The Little Drummer Boy may not be entirely biblical, the lesson is.

Where does this song come from? I always thought it was an old Czech carol, but after a little research, I found out to my surprise that it was written by American composer Katherine Davis in 1941! She originally called it "Carol of the Drum", and the first recording of it was by the Trapp Family Singers (above). According to Wikipedia, Davis claimed to have based it on a Czech carol, but if it existed, that carol has not been found. It does have a similar style to the Czech "Rocking Carol."

Now for a different version, I leave you with the Kenyan Boys Choir and Neema Ntalel...

Friday, December 23, 2011

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

One Foggy Christmas Eve by Steven Sauke, December 2022
(picture updated because the video I originally posted here is no longer on YouTube)

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" has been around since 1939, when Johnny Marks wrote it based on a story published by the Montgomery Ward company. It is a classic story of a bullied reindeer coming out on top and saving Christmas. 

But who were "all of the other reindeer"? Santa Claus to the rescue! 

Dasher, it turns out, was so named because he insisted on racing all the other reindeer every day, which seriously started to annoy them. His job is to clean and wax Santa's sleigh and to make sure that the directional radar is working right. 

When Dancer was a faun, he just wanted to dance. Santa observed this and named him accordingly. Dancer even put on tap dancing shows, and Santa suggested that he go to Broadway...but he decided he would rather pull the sleigh. When he isn't pulling the sleigh, he's doing nightly shows for the elves. 

Prancer is the activities coordinator of the reindeer. He especially enjoys organizing games of hide and seek, although they have to be careful hiding in the forest, due to hunting season. He also sponsors Friday night movies and makes popcorn and hot chocolate for everyone. 

Vixen is in love with Cupid. She's a bit of a neat freak, and makes sure the reindeer are clean...much to the annoyance of everyone but Cupid. Imagine having one of your peers make you take a bath every night! Most of the reindeer generally avoid her as much as they can. 

Comet, named after the comet Blorouis, is a straight-A student, and the pride and joy of his parents and Santa. He wants to be a teacher when he grows up. (If he was around in 1939, it must take a long time for reindeer to grow up!) 

Not surprisingly, Cupid was born on Valentine's Day. Santa named him Cupid due to his annoying habit of trying to arrange dates between reindeer. To that end, he even published his own newspaper, The Cupid Times. Blitzen works in his office, and Rudolph delivers the papers, which cost 25 cents. 

Donner (a.k.a. Donder) is the fitness expert. He drills the reindeer and makes sure they're in excellent shape for the annual flight around the world. Training starts November 8, when reindeer try out for spots on Santa's team. 

Blitzen brought back memories for Santa, back when Santa was in high school football, and their team used to blitz their opponents. Whenever Santa's team runs into a blizzard on their annual flight, Blitzen takes the lead and pulls them through. 

Rudolph was always the underdeer. The other reindeer always made fun of him, shunned him and bullied him due to his shiny nose. When he was young, he even tried to make it not shine, but nothing worked. On that fateful Christmas Eve, the fog at the North Pole was so thick that you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. Santa very nearly canceled the trip due to the weather conditions, until he realized that it might be worth a shot to put Rudolph in the lead. The rest, as they say, is history. 

But wait! Claus has a different tale to tell. 

Dasher comes from Los Angeles and has his own movie studio. He spends most of his time making movies with Venison Studios and hanging out on the beach. He is notorious for flying to the North Pole on his own private jet with only minutes to spare before the annual flight with the other reindeer. If he weren't so good at the Santa gig, Santa would have fired him years ago for his chronic lateness. 

Dancer and Prancer are twins. They had a great traveling act going many years ago, but their dream of stardom was brought to a tragic end by a hunter who fired on the stage. Out of work, they found an ad for a job at the North Pole, requesting anyone with talents useful at Christmas. 

Both sites agree that Vixen is neat, and that she's in love with Cupid. She is known for her graceful flying skills. Vixen was leading a group of trainee reindeer when they got into a dangerous situation. Cupid came to the rescue, and ironically, Vixen was smitten with the other Cupid's arrow. Vixen and Cupid are happily married, and they still hold hooves. 

Comet was leading the team through the fog one night, when tragedy struck and they had a serious accident. It evidently caused brain damage because he's been "spacey" ever since (thus the name). He thought he saw the lighthouse light at the tip of the North Pole, but unfortunately, it turned out to be a comet. He heroically saved the rest of the team by headbutting it out of the earth's atmosphere, but he has never been the same since. 

Both sites agree that Cupid is the matchmaker of the team. Once, he saw a group of reindeer trainees spinning out of control in a sudden updraft of wind and on a collision course with a nearby mountain. He dove in and grabbed the lead rein, guiding them back under control. A young doe named Vixen took note of that, and he has been her hero (and husband) ever since. 

The two sites disagree about the gender of Donder. Weird. However, they agree that Donder keeps the reindeer fit. She has a friendly rivalry with Dasher, mainly because she thinks she should be Captain rather than him. She's also in charge of the reindeer games. 

Blitzen was so named due to his proclivity to being struck by lightning. It's happened so much that he has an electrical charge now! He can get radio and TV signals on his antlers, and they even point north. He is Santa's compass, radio and lightning rod on the annual trip. 

Sadly,, like the other reindeer's initial reaction, discriminates against Rudolph and leaves him out. Such a sad commentary on reindeerkind. Hopefully they learn the error of their ways. They paint such heroic pictures of the bully reindeer that it makes me wonder if these stories are true. Perhaps all the heroics were actually done by Rudolph and everyone else is jealous. 


I also find the side comments in the song interesting. His nose was shiny "like a lightbulb." I hope so, if it's gonna get the reindeer through the fog. 

One of the names the reindeer called him was Pinocchio. How mean can you get? Comparing him with a puppet who very nearly turned into a donkey and was known for lying. However, like Rudolph, Pinocchio came out on top, and he learned his lesson. The comparison breaks down, though, in that it is the other reindeer, rather than Rudolph, who learn their lesson. 

 It suggests that the reindeer enjoy playing Monopoly. Really? Very few games bore me, but Monopoly is quite possibly the most boring game I have ever played. The only time I enjoyed it was when we played it in class in high school once, and it had to be split into segments due to limited time. 

Rudolph will go down in history, like Columbus. That is an apt comparison, as Columbus and Rudolph, one could say, were/are both famous explorers who dreamed of circumnavigating the globe. Columbus didn't succeed at that, but Rudolph does it every year! I hope that Rudolph's navigation skills are better than Columbus', though, and Rudolph doesn't land in Cuba thinking he's in China! That could lead to some embarrassing situations. [Update, 2022, as I have since learned more about Columbus... it seems he was a much worse bully then the other reindeer, to put it lightly. That's a subject for another time, but I definitely don't recommend Columbus' brutal and racist tactics.]


I also find it interesting that the reindeer are not that different from humans. They tend to shun, bully, and generally mistreat anyone who is different from them, whether or not they can help it. Then, only when it turns out there's something in it for them do they accept the person that is different. I think the lesson of this song is that we need to value each other's differences and realize that, as they say, "what makes us different makes us strong."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

(No Place Like) Home for the Holidays

Home for the Holidays is one of those songs that makes me happy, then leaves me wondering what planet the composer comes from. It was composed by Robert Allen, lyrics by Al Stillman, published in 1954. Perry Como recorded it shortly thereafter.

It tells about how amazing it is to come home for the holidays (I expect it meant Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year at the time). Personally, I have had a rather unusual life, and I have lived on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Having spent large parts of my life in the US and the Philippines, it's hard to define "home" for me. When we lived in the Philippines, we were too far away to be able to afford to come back to the US for Christmas. In the US, it hasn't necessarily made sense to go to the Philippines for Christmas. Thus, I've never really been in a position to make a long trip "home" for the Christmas season. The biggest trip I've ever made at Christmas was in 2009, when I "met a man who lived in Tennessee" (as the song says), and surprised my "adopted" big sister Jill Brasfield (which involved a lot of plotting with her husband and my "adopted" big brother Andy). I left Seattle on December 26, wearing a Tennessee Vols sweatshirt. I was particularly amused that someone at SeaTac Airport asked me if I was returning to Tennessee. I said, "Sort of. I've never been there before." That confused him. :-) But never fear, my "adopted" family in Tennessee definitely made me feel right at home. I'm sure for many people who actually do go home every year, it's a refreshing time of getting caught up on family life and seeing the sights and people you knew growing up. I know I had a blast visiting "family" in Tennessee! I don't recall having pumpkin pie there...probably because I went to Tennessee and not Pennsylvania...but pumpkin pie is always one of the highlights of November and December for me. :-)

I love traveling (for the most part), and this song is definitely about that. People travel from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, from Pennsylvania to Dixie, and elsewhere. Interesting, no mention of western states (at least by name). They also fail to mention some Northwesterners (such as Justin Donnelson) who like to vacation in Hawaii in the winter. Maybe because Hawaii wasn't a state yet in 1954 when this was written (and I'm pretty sure Justin wasn't born yet, anyway).

But there's one line that baffles me: "From Atlantic to Pacific, the traffic is terrific." Traffic is WHAT?! The busiest season of the year, when everyone is out shopping for Christmas, traffic jams are backed way up, impatient drivers have taken leave of common sense...they call that terrific? Maybe it was terrific in 1954? Or maybe Al Stillman enjoyed sitting in traffic. I don't know what planet Stillman lived on, but if it was terrific then, times have changed. (Of course, in Manila where I come from, terrific traffic means it only takes an hour to get 10 miles.) :-)

Aside from the bizarre traffic comment, this is a wonderful, heartwarming song, and I'm sure it embodied the wonderful feelings the composers had in the Christmas season, and many folks have had since then traveling home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and other winter holidays (or just vacation in general).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I Saw Three Ships

"I Saw Three Ships" has always slightly baffled me. What does the Christmas story have to do with ships? Why three? What were the Virgin Mary and Christ doing on a ship? The farthest the Bible tells about them going was when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt (probably via donkey or camel) to escape King Herod's murderous rage.

The singer claims to have seen three ships bearing the Virgin Mary and Christ come sailing into Bethlehem on Christmas morning (which is interesting, since, as Wikipedia points out, Bethlehem is about 20 miles from the Dead Sea, the nearest body of water). The singer goes on to tell how all the angels and "all the souls on earth" will sing. It then recommends that we all rejoice amain (which, according to, means "with great strength, speed, or haste" in other words, we should rejoice at the top of our lungs).

I'm all for rejoicing at the arrival of the Savior, and it is definitely worth the angels and everyone on earth celebrating. But that still leaves us with the question... Ships?!

Apparently, the song is from the 17th Century, likely written in Derbyshire, England in 1666. According to The Hymns and Carols of Christmas, legend says that in the 12th Century, three ships carried the gold, frankincense and myrrh given by the Wise Men (one gift on each ship, I guess) to Koln, Germany. As the years went by, the legend replaced the Magi with the Holy Family (other versions of the song also mention Joseph).

That makes a bit more sense. I still think it's weird, though.

UPDATE: According to my friend Wendy Marcinkiewicz, camels were known as "the ship of the desert." That could be another explanation, which would make sense.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Nightmare

Christmas 1818 was rapidly approaching, and St. Nicholas Church in the Austrian village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg was facing a serious problem: their organ was broken, with no time to fix it before Christmas. The church leaders were scrambling to figure out what to do. It was Christmas Eve, and they were running out of options. Assistant priest Josef Mohr remembered a poem he had written two years earlier. He showed it to Franz Gruber, the church's organist and choirmaster, and asked if he could set to music. So it was that at Christmas Mass (the next day!), the two men sang the new song, with Mohr playing the guitar and the choir echoing the last two lines of each of the six verses. The first verse went like this:

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

The song looks back to that silent night when (verse 1) a young virgin brought a baby into the world. (Verse 2) The news was announced by angels to the astonished shepherds. With the amazing gift of that night, God sent His (verse 3) light, (4) grace and (5) peace, to (6) send His only Son to earth to free mankind of our plight and woes.

St. Nicholas Church had a rather major problem that Christmas in 1818, but it was nothing compared to the first Christmas in about 4 BC, when Mary, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, had to make a difficult journey by donkey to Joseph's ancestral home of Bethlehem for the Roman census. Not only did she have to go through a painful journey, but she had to endure rumors and gossip about the fact she was having a baby before getting married. Under normal circumstances, having a child out of wedlock was punishable by death in their culture. Joseph very nearly divorced her, and would have if it hadn't been for an angel appearing to him in a dream. If Mohr and Gruber had problems, Mary and Joseph had it much worse.

When Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem, all the inns were full and they had to improvise. When St. Nicholas Church's organ broke, Mohr and Gruber had to improvise. Never has a stable had so much in common with a guitar.

Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant, so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Josef Mohr, painting photographed by Wikipedia user Werner100359

Franz Gruber, painted by Sebastian Stief in 1846

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Happy Holiday

"Happy Holiday" was written in 1942 by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn. The main premise of the movie involves an inn that is only open for major holidays throughout the year. (If I remember right, that includes Presidents' Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. As Martin Luther King was alive and well at the time, his holiday wasn't celebrated yet.) For each holiday, they put on a show appropriate to that celebration. Happy Holiday was the song performed for...get this...NEW YEAR'S EVE!

When it was written, it was a song expressing heartfelt wishes for a happy holiday season, which started with Thanksgiving, and encompassed Christmas and New Years. Like Sleigh Ride, it is not specifically a Christmas song, but it is most commonly associated with Christmas.

As the years have progressed and folks from more diverse backgrounds have joined our ranks as Americans, the list of holidays celebrated at this time of the year have grown, including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Festivus and the Winter Solstice (I'm probably forgetting some). The way I see it, diversity is a beautiful thing, and we should celebrate our differences as well as our similarities. I'm not saying we have to celebrate the holidays from other religions and cultures, but we should respect their right to celebrate their holidays. Sadly, the phrase "Happy Holidays" has become a bit of a political statement, as some folks are offended by the fact that we celebrate Christmas and not their holiday of choice (or in the case of some Jehovah's Witnesses, any holidays at all). It seems a sad commentary of human nature that too many Christians are offended when they hear people who want to be inclusive wish them "Happy Holidays!" rather than "Merry Christmas!" Why do we as Christians expect non-Christians to behave like Christians? We don't expect cats to bark (usually). Recently, the American Family Association initiated a boycott of Walgreens because they said "Happy Holidays" with no mention of Christmas. After hearing from many angry Christians around the country, Walgreens pointed out that it wasn't Thanksgiving yet, and they were planning to say "Merry Christmas" as Christmas got closer. The boycott was called off. Just think how many headaches it would have saved if they had asked first before starting a full-scale boycott!

I decided to comment on this song this morning when I saw a comment from my friend Mike Gibson, which said:

With all due respect, saying "Happy Holidays" is not offensive to the cause of Christ. Being loving and respectful to others with different beliefs is not denying Him, either.

I completely agree. Christianity is about what we do believe, not what we don't believe. Being offended that non-Christians may or may not celebrate Christmas, and when they do, they may or may not mention Christ, is not a good witness. I have a feeling it is one of the major reasons we are stereotyped as being intolerant and hateful. I wonder how much hostility toward Christmas would be calmed if we would calm down ourselves. Jesus hung out with people the Pharisees saw as hopeless cases and who they felt we should have nothing to do with. If we don't reach out in love, not anger, to the people who need it the most, who will?

I'm all for keeping Christ in Christmas, but we need to respect the people who aren't. We need to show them love, not offense. Many of them aren't Christians, and we shouldn't expect them to act like it. As Gibson also pointed out, "He told us to remember his death, anyway. Not his birth."

If someone says "Happy Holidays" to me, I will probably respond with a smile and "Merry Christmas!" I celebrate Christmas, but I respect other people's right not to.

I leave you with Straight No Chaser's version of The 12 Days of Christmas, in which Hanukkah and Africa make cameo appearances. :-)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Last Christmas

The song "Last Christmas" is one of my least favorite Christmas songs. It's truly a study in incorrigibility. The singer seems to want to improve his lot in life, but he just never learns.

"Last Christmas," he sings, "I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away. This year, to save me from tears, I'll give it to someone special."

First of all, he needs to understand that a heart is a very precious thing to give, and he needs to learn not to give it lightly. He seems to be beginning to grasp that, but it just doesn't sink in completely. How do I know? Because the next year, I hear him singing it again. This tells me that every Christmas, he gives his heart to someone special, and the very next day, that someone special gives it away. Instead of saving himself from tears, he ends up collapsing in tears every stinking December 26 because the "someone special" turned out to be not so special after all. He must have a serious case of insecurity, and no wonder, as he is consistently dumped every Boxing Day!

I guess the moral of the story is that you need to be much more careful in giving your heart than this singer. There are better things to give as Christmas presents than your heart. Especially if you give the same thing every year.