December 20, 2007

Christmas and Americanization

Traditionally, we try to push aside gloom and doubts to celebrate Christmas. I sing in a choir, and we have done our part of spreading good cheer, with no less than four concerts during the past two weeks. The music chosen is a good index to the content of the services. The text for most of the hymns comes in fairly direct fashion from the New Testament, whether in Danish, English, or Latin. Yes, Latin is still a living language when it comes to ecclesiastical affairs. We have a work by Palestrina in Latin, for example, and one work with a text in delightfully garbled Old English mixed up with Latin phrases. German hymns are noticeably absent from the repertoire of the choirs I know, and it seems likely that this is an effect of World War II. Occupation did not endear the Germans to the Danes, who frequently perform Handel's Messiah, in English of course, while a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio is far more rare.

The prominence of English should not be mistaken for Americanization, as the pieces chosen by most choirs are from British composers. In the case of the Odense Motet Kor, which I sing with, the earliest British work is by William Byrd, in a series that ends with Benjamin Brittain, John Carter, and Vaughn Williams. American Christmas music, as experienced in Denmark, belongs on the street or the department store, where I hear Bing Crosby croon about that white Christmas we seldom have here and numerous versions of Rudolf. So, the uplifting religious sounds are English, inspired in good part by Cambridge University traditions, while the bouncy and sentimental tunes are American, much the same as one might hear in the US.

The most powerful musical tradition, however, remains Danish. A whole host of songs, both religious and secular, have been composed over the centuries. Some of these melodies seem to me, at least, to be drawn from abroad and reworked into Danish with a new text, but if so they have been thoroughly assimilated. Virtually all Danes seem to know this musical tradition, and on December 24 they will be singing with enthusiasm around their Christmas trees, which are covered with flickering candles - not electric bulbs. These little fires all over a tree that is rapidly drying out are a definite fire hazard, but consider that most families insist on dancing around the tree, with many chances to brush against the limbs and set them waving. And note that some (well, many) of the adults are not really dancing but more staggering around the tree after eating and especially drinking quite a lot, and you have the recipe for conflagration. Yet in fact, I have never seen an accident, which may prove that a higher power is benevolently looking down on the giddy proceedings. Just in case, the Danish family typically has a bucket of water at the ready.

For anyone out there who thinks that Americanization is washing over the world with little resistance, Danish Christmas suggests otherwise. The songs are European, the mountain of protein on the table is usually NOT a turkey, but far more likely a duck, a goose, or pork. And the rituals of the day are all local traditions, too. For example, after the family circles the tree for a while, the youngest child leads them in a line-dance through the entire house. And the presents are usually opened not on the 25th, but after dinner on the 24th. In fact, the Danes love Christmas so much they have an extra dinner on the 23rd. They give it a name - "Little Christmas Eve" - and consider it to be almost as sacred to family life as the following night.

Finally, what about the presents under the tree? Some of them are American, of course, and these are often digital, whether computer software, DVDs of Hollywood films, or a new Ipod. But while a survey would be required to confirm my hunch, I strongly suspect that Christmas is a time of patriotic giving. Danish books and music seem prominent in the store windows, and many presents are expensive, high-quality examples of Danish design. To put this another way, I wonder if the American presents might prove to be a bit ephemeral, while the Danish gifts may well be displayed or used for years.

As for me, Christmas will be in Connecticut this year. It is time for some personal re-Americanization after being immersed (and thoroughly enjoying) several consecutive years of the marvelous Danish Christmas.