I hate Christmas.
Shots fired, I know. For all you people out there that love Christmas and the baggage it brings, calm yourself, pick up the ornaments you may have dropped on the floor, and continue reading. I’ll unload my statement. I love “Christmas”, the day before, the day after, the time spent with family, and savoring of home-cooked food. It’s everything else that grinds my gears.
Black Friday is the beginning of the madness. We have no time to recover from our Thanksgiving food-coma before consumer bacchanal descends like a dark shadow over every retailer in America. But even if you skip out on the crowds at the mall, the specter of Christmas cheer still creeps into your life. The moment the turkey carcass has been stripped, every radio station, TV channel, restaurant, and business begins the real onslaught. Sometimes its innocuous. Other times it is borderline horrific.
Christmas music. Yes, the bane of the month of December. Excessively jolly, wholly cliché, and entirely aggravating, its like a dry itchy red rash that comes back every winter. You can’t get rid of it. You can’t stop itching it. It’s just there. It’s everywhere. Every musician has played Christmas music, ranging from the meek collegiate musician trying to scrape out enough money for Christmas gifts to the mighty commercial artist cashing in on their new CD. I’ll admit, I’m a sinner in this movement. We take something that is wonderful, a holy day, a time for family and friends when we can relax and find peace, and we ruin it by commercialization, commodification, and sheer overload. I do like Christmas. Three days of it I can deal with, maybe even a week, but not a month. This bastardization of something that is inherently good makes me want to live the monastic life in seclusion only to hear the prayers and chants of fellow monks until it all blows over.
When I heard that WMU University Symphony Orchestra would be accompanying the Moscow Ballet for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, I had mixed feelings. Wow, the Moscow Ballet! … But Nutcracker... The music of this most famous ballet is so ingrained in our ears and minds in America. Truly, it is an American phenomenon which, since the mid-20th century, has become so integrated that it is synonymous with the Christmas season. The question is, why?
One explanation might be Disney's Fantasia in which a suite of the Nutcracker’s dances was employed. It captivated the minds of a huge audience by bringing to life the auditory experience of music into a visual narrative. However, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No. 6 and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring were also used and these are not in the general consciousness or sub-consciousness of the American public.
Another explanation might be how the Nutcracker has been bonded with the Christmas season cycle. Since Christmas comes back every year, so does Nutcracker. Repeat performances means repeat plays and the whole effect snowballs over decades until many ballet companies and symphonies rely on its programing to survive leaner financial times.
I believe that America’s love affair with Nutcracker is part of a fantasy. I don’t mean to use the word fantasy with a negative connotation. It plays into, more specifically, our Christmas fantasy, our need for child-like wonder in which we can return to innocence and a time when we believed in the splendor of magic. Since Charles Dickens, Christmas has become a time for generosity but also meditation about what is really important to us. We abandon our usual rationality and adopt a very different attitude. No matter how big or small the gesture is, we celebrate with magnificence and extravagance. Decorations that would otherwise be ridiculous are now beautiful. Music that is unrealistically cheerful is welcome. Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker embodies this. The Christmas setting, splendid costumes, elegant dancers, and not to mention live orchestra, serves us the ultimate artistic feast of the season. This acquired taste is something that is in our blood, more than baseball or apple pie. It’s a spirit that is stronger than the anesthetic of vodka, stronger than the most brutal Russian (or Michigan) winter, and stronger than the sands of time.
Moreover, I would posit that there is a need for this kind of outlet. With the harshness of the world and daily grind of the year, the performance of great music such as the Nutcracker serves as a necessary escape, not in a blind or willfully ignorant way, but in a meaningful one. Even with the unholy commercialization of the holiday and the cliché re-gifting of pre-packaged Christmas music, one cannot but help be moved by the desperate and grand pathos of Tchaikovsky’s sincere expression.
This is the kind of art the melts the Scrooge-ish heart and Grinch-like attitude of the most cynical individual. It’s times like Christmas that music remind us that this is what we need, not only for a day, week, or month, but an entire year and entire lifetime. The WMU University Symphony Orchestra plays the Nutcracker for the Moscow Ballet tonight at 7:00 in Miller Auditorium.