Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/19/2010

Peace on earth: bathrobes and cardboard angel wings

For once I don’t have to participate in my church’s parade of kids in bathrobes and littler kids in white choir robes with gold Christmas tree garland halos and cardboard wings. I don’t have to cringe as the children’s choir sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

. . .the hopes and fears. . .

. . .the hopes and fears. . .

In the mid-‘80s, I wrote about that carol as music columnist for the Episcopal Times of the Diocese of Boston, where Phillips Brooks was Rector of Trinity when he wrote the words (1876). I said the tune is unsingable unless you’ve heard it 1,000 times on Muzak in the grocery store.  Even though I did not write about sentimentality of the words, my writing did not please the Bostonians.  Some folk at least have the sense to sing Phillip Brooks’ words to a lovely English folk tune (Forest Green) harmonized by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958).

I’m curious what kind of lavish pageant production my new (large and wealthy) church—which, remember, I’ve joined solely because I love the music—puts on. Probably a step up from bathrobes and cardboard angel wings. If the choir sings “O Little Town” and the organist gives one of his spectacular readings of some grand Christmas work, it might be worth attending. Not.

I’ve been to Bethlehem (the first time near the end of the Second Intifada in 2003). “How still we see thee lie,” doesn’t cut it. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” comes closer. No one will help the kids in Christmas pageants understand about the “fears” of all the years being part of what one might meet in Bethlehem this Christmas Eve.

Ralph Vaughn Williams understood about fears—and hope. Vaughn Williams, A Cambridge-educated historian as well as musician, said in early societies  “. . . each small community was self-sufficing and every outsider an enemy, [and] nationalism, or rather, parochialism was not so much an ideal as a necessity.” But in modernity, “with the growth of mobility and its consequences of foreign trade, foreign wars, and the breaking down of natural boundaries,” people began to feel

that something that they loved and which peculiarly belonged to them was slipping away from them. It was not until they were threatened that they realized for the first time how much their customs, their language, their art mean to them. (1)

His description of the results of that realization seems remarkably apropos of our own time.

Thus arose on the one hand the self-conscious cosmopolitans and on the other the self-conscious nationalists with their evil counterparts, the truculent chauvinist . . . I am afraid it is true that nationalism first appears as hatred and fear of enemies, or at all events the fear of losing one’s livelihood. (2)

Vaughn Williams was active in the European Federal Union cause, a hopeful peace initiative between the world wars. He served in the First World War and saw many friends killed, including George Butterworth, a composer of music based on English folk songs. Vaughn Williams had introduced him to the “national music” of England.

Vaughn Williams believed that, since the League of Nations had failed and peace could not last in Europe, the movement for a Federal Union of the states of Europe was the only hope. The movement started before and continued after World War II, and Vaughn Williams was one of its leaders. (3)

However, his reasons for advocating so strongly for the formation of a United States of Europe may seem a bit surprising. He believed that such a federal structure would be the only way to maintain peace because he believed “that the love of one’s country, one’s languages, one’s customs, one’s religion, are essential to our spiritual health.” A union of nations to keep peace was the only way to insure the national characteristics he thought were essential for “spiritual health,” characteristics such as the English folk songs that so interested him. He thought that preservation of essential national characteristics would make such a union possible.

We may laugh at these things, but we love them none the less. Indeed it is one of our national characteristics and one which I should be sorry to see disappear, that we laugh at what we love. This is something that a foreigner can never fathom, but it is out of such characteristics, these hard knots in our timber, that we can help to build up a united Europe and a world federation. (4)

Vaughn Williams’ dedication to the work of peace extended to his artistic life. He composed a cantata for choir, soloists, and orchestra titled Dona Nobis Pacem, “Give Us Peace.” This complex work, as Scott Hochstetler explains in great detail, is constructed from Biblical, liturgical, and poetic texts. It is a moving prayer for peace as well as an exhortation for nations to live in peace (see below for a series of links to a performance of the complete work).

Vaughn Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem is not a Christmas work. Its texts are, however, expressive of the message of “peace” so close to the “meaning” of Christmas—one of the meanings expressed in every Christmas pageant. Children in white robes and cardboard angel wings will sing, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” The church feels the need to insure that its children understand the message of Christmas, “Peace,” at least as well as did those in the movement for a Europe united to insure peace during and after WWII.

Since before Vaughn Williams’ day, however, the message of “Peace” and all other spiritual messages of Christmas have been subverted, corrupted, to serve purposes other than “Peace on Earth.” The church will have to do much more than dress up the kids in bathrobes and cardboard wings to counteract the overwhelming reality that

Freedom to. . . participate or not in religious rituals and holy days, is one of America’s most cherished rights. Yet we cannot refuse to participate in Christmas rituals of gift giving and other festivities without being socially ostracized. What makes the extended festival of the Holidays so overwhelmingly effective is precisely the illusion that Christmas. . . is spontaneous rather than forced, based on our heart’s desires rather than on social constraint or obedience. . . (5)

Christmas, in spite of churches’ valiant efforts to take it back, is the property and backbone of our economy. It exists to serve the imperial forces of unbridled capitalism. It

is the mystification of commodities as gifts that ostensibly express the purchasers’ love and appreciation of friends and family, the virtual transubstantiation of commodities into spiritually salvific and morally redeeming objects to be acquired for purposes that transcend the utilitarian and mundane. . . .for at Christmas we purchase commodities for higher purposes, to express our love for others, our capacity for deep emotional feelings, our attachment to family, in the course of which we also participate in the wider economic and social community. (6)

In the crossfire of hopes and fears

In the crossfire of hopes and fears

This is a far cry from the “economic and social community” Vaughn Williams hoped to build up. It is a far cry from the “Peace on earth” the child angels will proclaim. The “higher purpose” of the compulsory celebration of Christmas and the

features and festivals of consumer capitalism, then, serve to veil and obscure that in both the market and its religious expressions we are ultimately serving the superhuman and supernatural force that determines our lives: global capital. (7)
(1) Vaughn Williams, Ralph. “The History of Nationalism in Music.” National Music and Other Essays. London: Oxford University Press, 1963 (53).
(2) idem.
(3) Hochstetler, Scott. “Dona Nobis Pacem: Vaughan Williams’s Federalist Manifesto.” Choral Journal 49.12 (2009): 42-52.
(4) Vaughn Williams, op. cit. “Nationalism and Internationalism.” (154).
(5) Horsley, Richard A. “Religion and Other Products of Empire.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71.1 (2003): 13.
(6) idem.
(7) idem.

Links to a four-section performance of Dona Nobis Pacem on Youtube:


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