Christmas Edition

December 24, 2011

The little concert that my pupils and I were performing yesterday went very well and I came home from the music school with a feeling of accomplishment and relief. It seemed that everybody liked it and I liked it too.

I’m not against traditions, they are a stabilizing factor in society. I’m also not against coming together to rejoice and jubilate for whatever reason, may it be to remember a historic event (Independence Day) or honor an important person (ML King Birthday) or celebrate a community achievement (Thanksgiving).

Christmas is a curious mix of pagan rituals (Saturnalia, Yule), the nativity myth and consumerism. This fact alone doesn’t necessarily discredit the Christmas festivities but unfortunately todays Christmas is celebrated in the shopping malls and supermarkets and it is so intertwined and meshed with consumer culture that it has become a main symbol of consumerism.

At Christmas, one has to give and receive presents, and these presents have to be produced, advertised, and bought. Presents should be a surprise and in practice that means one gets a lot of things that are not needed, not wanted, or outright useless.

I cannot remember that I ever got really useful Christmas gifts, but I remember well the many situations where I had to pretend joy and excitement while I was in fact thinking how I could get rid of the received junk as fast as possible. Unfortunately I don’t discard things easily, and the basement as well as the attic are full of items where I still ponder about a possible practical use or at least a way to upcycle or recycle them.

I don’t like to get presents, I told everybody to spare the money, presents are not appreciated. Financial donations though are always welcome, I wouldn’t object to a neatly packed bundle of 100 Dollar banknotes (100 or 500 Euro banknotes would be even more appreciated). I also wouldn’t reject a Solid State Drive with at least 120 GByte and 500 MByte/sec writing speed. I recently updated most computers by exchanging the platter based hard disks with Solid State Drives, but one machine still has the original hard disk, waiting to be exchanged.


The program of the annual Christmas performances in the music school consists mainly of Christmas carols and I have two favorites which we perform nearly every year.

One has the title: “I saw three ships come sailing in”. This is an old English song, the earliest known printed version is from the 17th century. The reference to three ships is thought to originate in the three ships that brought the assumed relics of the “Three Kings from the East” to the Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century.

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day in the morning

And what was in those ships all three
On Christmas day, on Christmas day?
And what was in those ships all three
On Christmas day in the morning?

Our savior, Christ, and his lady
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
Our savior, Christ, and his lady
On Christmas day in the morning

And all the bells on earth shall ring
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And all the angels in heaven shall sing
On Christmas day in the morning

Nat King Cole, Glen Campbell, Sting (Gordon Sumner), The Carpenters, Hawk Nelson, The Chieftains and many others performed this tune but I’m not impressed by any of the recorded versions. Over the years I developed my own arrangement which interprets the song as a medium tempo Jazz tune with a strong swing feeling.

The main reason I like this song is, that the lyrics are quite an interesting rendition of the nativity story. The lyrics remind me in a strange way on a scene in Bertold Brechts “Threepenny Opera,” where Polly Peachum sings “Pirate Jenny”. The difference is that only one ship is coming in and that the lyrics of Pirate Jenny purport a significantly different sentiment:

You people can watch while I’m scrubbing these floors
And I’m scrubbin’ the floors while you’re gawking
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town
In this crummy old hotel
But you’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’.
No. You couldn’t ever guess to who you’re talkin’.

Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you’ll wonder who could that have been
And you see me kinda grinnin’ while I’m scrubbin’
And you say, “What’s she got to grin?”
I’ll tell you.

There’s a ship
The Black Freighter
With a skull on it’s masthead
Will be coming in

You gentlemen can say, “Hey gal, finish them floors!
Get upstairs! What’s wrong with you! Earn your keep here!
You toss me your tips
And look out to the ships
But I’m counting your heads
As I’m making the beds
Cuz there’s nobody gonna sleep here, tonight
Nobody’s gonna sleep here

Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you say, “Who’s that kicking up a row?”
And ya see me kinda starin’ out the winda
And you say, “What’s she got to stare at now?”
I’ll tell ya.

There’s a ship
The Black Freighter
Turns around in the harbor
Shootin’ guns from her bow

You gentlemen can wipe off that smile off your face
Cause every building in town is a flat one
This whole frickin’ place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up safe and sound
And you yell, “Why do they spare that one?”
Yes. That’s what you say.
“Why do they spare that one?”

All the night through, through the noise and to-do
You wonder who is that person that lives up there?
And you see me stepping out in the morning
Looking nice with a ribbon in my hair

And the ship
The Black Freighter
Runs a flag up it’s masthead
And a cheer rings the air

By noontime the dock
Is a-swarmin’ with men
Comin’ out from the ghostly freighter
They move in the shadows
Where no one can see
And they’re chainin’ up people
And they’re bringin’ em to me
Askin’ me,
“Kill them NOW, or LATER?”
Askin’ ME!
“Kill them now, or later?”

Noon by the clock
And so still at the dock
You can hear a foghorn miles away
And in that quiet of death
I’ll say, “Right now.
Right now!”

Then they pile up the bodies
And I’ll say,
“That’ll learn ya!”

And the ship
The Black Freighter
Disappears out to sea
And on it is me

As I read and compare the lyrics of the two songs I’m not so sure if there are not similarities beyond the image of a ship sailing into a port. In both cases the incoming ship means salvation and relief from an unfortunate situation.

There is much misery and suffering in the word and many, many oppressed and tormented people need a savior to come and bring freedom and relief from oppression. In todays world the savior of course does not sail in via ship but sends drones and bombs first to destroy the oppressors. This is much easier done than an invasion via ships and it is done all the times now, it has in fact become routine in the last years. All your oppressed and tyrannized people, be aware that help is as near as the next US embassy or CIA office (often identical) where you just have to denounce your oppressors and provide the necessary geographical information.

Be careful what you call for though, things could go out of hand with you becoming “collateral damage” and being relieved in eternity from the burden of this life.

The second tune that we perform nearly every year is called: “Some Children See Him”. This song was composed by Alfred Burt in 1951, the lyrics were written by Wihla Hutson. Burt was a Jazz musician who also worked as a music teacher and composer. Unfortunately he died in 1954 just 33 years old from lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker). The song “Some Children See Him” is part of a collection of 15 Christmas carols which all became popular. “Caroling, Caroling”, “Come, Dear Children”, and “The Star Carol” are the most famous songs from this collection. Burt finished The Star Carol just one day before his death.

The lyricist Wihla Hutson was an organist and a close friend of the Burt family. Wihla never married and stayed with her mother till her mother died. She served for many years as well respected organist and choir director of the Episcopal Church in Southfield and died 2002 101 years old.

Wihla Hutson never had children but she loved children which is very much expressed in her lyrics:

Some children see Him lily white,
the baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
with tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
with dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
this Savior whom we kneel beside.

some children see Him almond-eyed,

with skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.

Some children see him dark as they,

and, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
will see the baby Jesus’ face
like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
and filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
and with thy heart as offering,
come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

In 1995, the country of Palau issued a series of stamps commemorating “Some Children See Him” and its message of tolerance. I don’t discuss the message of this song with my pupils, they are clever enough to find it out by themselves.

I live in a country ripe with racism and xenophobia. It is an affluent country and a preferred destination of economic migrants. My pupils are not bothered by this but the parents often are. I have to consider the misgivings of the parents, which are subsumed in the following two paragraphs:

While the economic migrants on one hand do the dirty work that the locals are not willing to do they on the other hand don’t fit easily into the cultural and social fabric. Ethnic diversity could be beneficial and enrich cultural life but unfortunately many incoming economic refugees don’t mingle with the local people, they settle down in separated communities which are like bridgeheads of a foreign culture from which the foreigners try to gain ground meter by meter.

These economic refugees are not able and not willing to reconcile and harmonize with the culture of their host country and they often are not even willing to adhere to local rules and regulations. The ensuing frictions are causing a rise of racism and a surge of right-wing political parties.

Rereading the last paragraphs I have to acknowledge that I share these views to some extend and I have to ask myself, how it comes that my progressive values and my ideals of tolerance, equality, and justice were so completely corrupted by the reality of immigration politics?

I still want to help, but despite my desire to help all people in need and to accommodate them I see now the practical limitations of this approach, the ensuing problems were demonstrated in many countries over a period of many decades. Taking in all economic migrants means to import the inherent systemic dilemmas of their societies and it generates cultural tensions that inevitably will radicalize both sites.

Why not just stop the still ongoing neocolonial exploitation of poor countries and pay our dues with a generous restoration fund? There will not be much sympathy for such a program, because our affluence is based on this neocolonial exploitation. After all this here is still a democracy and the voters will never approve anything what diminishes their income. A few responsible people try nevertheless with small initiatives in this direction (which should be supported and propagated).

Or we just leave them alone to sort out the problems by themselves? Maybe this is the best what one could hope fore and maybe in one or the other cases wise leaders will turn things around and guide their people into a brighter future, a future where all children can experience a comfortable and happy childhood.

I wish them well and I wish all children a comfortable and happy childhood. I cannot imagine yet how this could be achieved in countries where the average fertility rate is 5 and more children, where the pastures are overgrazed, the forests clearcut, and where everything what is left slowly turns into dessert because of a persisting drought caused by global warming.

Never mind, as I am still believing in the ingenuity of humans and and the ability of nature to heal I keep going on, Happy Christmas to all my friends!

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