Singing Christmas carols in an age of narrow sectarianism

When I was growing up back in the 1940's, my parents and their friends did lots of entertaining at this time of the year. Their favorite was to gather together to sing Christmas carols, and then have a drink or two followed by supper.

In those pre-television days, everyone had a wonderful time celebrating their friendship and the Christmas spirit. But as time went on and their generation gradually passed away, the custom died out.

Died out, that is until my wife Kathy and I started talking about our happiest childhood memories, including those Christmas caroling parties. And so we decided to resurrect the custom. For nearly 25 years, our friends have gathered at our house in mid-December. The invitation reads "4:00 p.m., Christmas caroling, 6:00 p.m. cocktails and nibbles," the idea being those who wish to sing would do so while voiceless celebrants could gather a little later.

Throughout the years, we've had something like 70 people of all sorts and cultures, religious practices and beliefs, all brought together by ties of friendship and a shared wish to celebrate the coming of Christmas in a traditional way.

Granted, it’s also become a politically incorrect event, since our present social climate discourages singing and learning Christmas carols in schools the way it used to be done. Happily, most of our friends are of an age when they don’t need much prodding to easily remember the carols we all learned as children in school.

Our group does include a wide mix of folks: Christian, to be sure, but also Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic and atheist. In my mind, the fact that we all gather and sing together in the spirit of the season confirms the truth that shared culture among friends trumps political correctness and narrow sectarianism.

And that, in turn provokes me to reflect on the popularity of today’s “identity politics,” in which people's particular racial, gender, religious or cultural background has come to define one's very nature as a social and political being. Both political parties have increasingly fallen prey to this self-damaging habit, damaging because, taken to an extreme, it puts self-limiting shackles on our political process.

Democrats, long a coalition party representing many different groups, find it important for members in good standing to check off all the appropriate boxes: Gender (and anti-misogyny), support for income redistribution, minorities and immigrants, labor and working class, environmentalism, support for children and the downtrodden.

Republican boxes include anti-government and anti-government programs, anti-immigration, pro-trickle-down economics, support for business and the workings of the free market.

Indeed, Republicans have gone so far in identity requirements as to coin the term "RINO" ("Republican in name only") for those who do not toe the line of correctness and who therefore – many of them believe -- should be drummed out of the party.

Yet I've come to think that perhaps the most concrete attitude defining and separating the parties is their differing attitude toward patriotism. By "patriotism" I do not mean the knee-jerk, flag waving patriotism that is so often the final refuge of scoundrels who have little to say and much to hide about policy or the public good.

Rather, it has to do with the recognition that as American citizens we have accrued enormous benefits by our citizenship and that fact alone must deserve honor and respect. It's why I am puzzled at the absence of overt patriotic symbols ‒ the American flag in particular ‒ at most Democratic-liberal events. I would have thought that if Democrats of all people would want to encourage flag waving at their events to provide as much room in their party as possible for people who find it important to show pride in their being Americans.

But, judging from what I've seen up close or on TV, it's hard to find an American flag at a liberal rally.

Which gets back to our Christmas caroling party next week. We will all gather together as diverse Americans united in our respect for our country's tolerance for differing customs amongst differing people. For we have learned that culture does trump political correctness, every time. And that's why our singing together brings tears of gratitude to my eyes and fullness to my heart.

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Suzanne Hayes
Tue, 12/05/2017 - 9:14am

Thank you for this insight, and for articulating it so well. Yes!

David Reid
Tue, 12/05/2017 - 9:31am

So, do you include Hanukah songs in your show of “respect for our country's tolerance for differing customs amongst differing people?” That would certainly show respect.

Maybe Democratic-liberal meetings don’t wave the flag because its been used too many times by right-wing groups as a cover for repugnant behavior & racist positions. Just look at the Trump campaign.

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 9:58am

Two items (more than others) struck me about this article. One is about children not learning Christmas carols in school anymore. I went to grade school in the sixties and seventies. We sang a carol or two but certainly didn't learn them there. Singing carols was something my parents and church attendence taught me. Today's climate of political correctness isn't discouraging caroling, just bringing the religious into the public school system, which is completely reasonable. These are things parents should teach if they want their children to learn them. Secondly, as to liberals not displaying the American flag; I think that's just a reflection of the shame we feel right now about how American right wing politics is damaging our democracy. Flying the flag isn't just something one does automatically. It's kind of like the football players taking a knee instead of placing their hands over their hearts for the American anthem. They are no less patriotic, just unwilling to go along with the crowd when there is an obvious injustice. The flags will return when we solve this horrendous problem we have in the White House.

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 1:54pm

What is a horrendous problem to you is gratification to others that things are finally being corrected. This statement by the ICE deputy director is but a small sample of why we love President Trump.

"Thomas Homan, acting chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said Monday that immigration enforcement is thriving under President Trump's leadership unlike any recent commander in chief, reports the Washington Examiner. "This president has done more for border security and public safety than any of the six presidents I've worked for. Just since his leadership in January, border crossings are at a 45-year low. Now that's not a coincidence. That's because this president has let the men and women of Border Patrol and ICE do their job,"

John Q. Public
Tue, 12/05/2017 - 10:31am

"It's why I am puzzled at the absence of overt patriotic symbols ‒ the American flag in particular ‒ at most Democratic-liberal events. "

That's nothing compared to my bewilderment at why most Republican-conservative events are replete with icon worship as merely a prelude to trashing the ideals those icons are supposed to represent.

John Hulett
Tue, 12/05/2017 - 10:42am

Awesome article, Phil. I love Christmas Caroling that unites our hearts in joy while celebrating the wonderful time of year creating an atmosphere of love, joy and goodwill to all. Enjoy your time this year with your friends who still know the music. I still remember the tears in my mother's eyes as our church in Grand Rapids walked the halls of her nursing home to sing songs she knew by heart. This brought such joy to her heart. And posting the America flag...thank you for pointing out its absence at too many events. The flag and what it represents allows this country to be great. We can be Americans under one banner to be different in many ways, yet patriots of our great country that allows these differences. Merry Christmas, Phil, to you and yours.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 12/05/2017 - 10:51am

"But, judging from what I've seen up close or on TV, it's hard to find an American flag at a liberal rally."

Could that be due to the PUMA-faction in the democratic party?

On a side note, if it's Christmas Caroling you are into, it is/was on the itinerary for things like Noel Night, Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village, Light the Village in Rochester, Heritage Holidays at Wolcott Mill and The Holly Dickens Festival (just to name a few). So some traditions have not been shunted to the side under the guise of "tolerance" and political correctness.

Scott Roelofs, ...
Tue, 12/05/2017 - 10:57am

Mr. Powers, you seem to bemoan the fact that "our present social climate discourages singing and learning Christmas carols in schools the way it used to be done." Wrong on two fronts. It isn't "discouraged, " it is prevented. And it isn't the "social climate," it is the purposeful, aggressive agenda of so-called "progressives" to drive out ANY mention of Christ in the government-run schools. Any choir or band director who dares to perform 'Silent Night' or 'Away in the Manger' in a school Christmas program (oops, I mean Holiday program) is threatened with lawsuits or termination. Look in the mirror Mr. Powers - this is the result of progressive thought that you have espoused and promoted your entire news career. Your nostalgia over how schools used to operate and how patriotism has declined rings hollow. Nonetheless, I do hope that you have a joyous and Merry Christmas. It is a time that we celebrate the arrival of the only one who can save a deeply troubled, depraved and sin-sick humanity. Isaiah 9:6, For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 4:41pm

Your story and the comments of your readers both point to fact that the both politic sides moved further apart to the point of discomfort of being in the presence of each other and loss of understanding of previously shared traditions. Keep at it.

Alexander Beaton
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 12:56pm

This get-together is obviously a tradition that you cherish and enjoy. It's yours, and nobody can take that away. That said, there is a not-so-subtle message that you expect non-Christians to sing along with the carols, because it's tradition. To that I'll say, the enjoyment of Christian traditions are not dependent on the participation of non-Christians. Here we are in December. The ground is frozen, and we are lacking in sunlight. Who wouldn't want something to be happy about. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, etc.

There's is heated debate whether or not this is a Christian country. I would say resoundingly the answer is YES. As a knee-jerk reaction to communism, the phrase "under God" was added to our pledge of allegiance. Many of our states have codified the exclusion of the non-religious from holding office. Even though the US Supreme Court overturned that decades ago, those words still remain as a reminder that if one does not believe in a supreme being, one is not seen as trustworthy. There remains a very real unspoken religious test that one must pass to be elected or appointed to most offices of importance. The non-religious are a growing segment of the population, and grossly underrepresented in high public offices. I can live with that, so long as the office holders are able to keep their priorities and serve all the people. That seems to be increasingly difficult for many of our leaders though.

As for the flag waving. One thing we should understand is the difference between patriotism and nationalism, which I think you alluded to. Certain segments do so much flag waving that it raises eyebrows. It's as if the presence of a gaggle of flags will subliminally justify whatever point of view being presented (actually, it does seems to work). The flag has an important place in public life, but so often it seems to be used as a prop. Ask anybody from another country about this. This IS a great country, and also a country that is prone to sweeping things under the rug instead of confronting them. In 2017 we are confronting a lot of things, and it's uncomfortable.