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The Nativity through the Ages in Art, Music and Literature

Whoa, kind of pompous, huh? Canít you just feel your eyelids getting heavy? Not to worry. This topic will be dealt with in the same casual, slapdash way youíve come to expect from this Christmas website. This should only take a minute.

Basically it comes down to this. Poets, songwriters and painters just wallow in Nativity themes; prose writers (novelists and dramatists) not so much. And no wonder: Thereís no story there for them. You're pretty much done working after the first paragraph.

Our early ancestors knew there was little to be found at the beginning of a personís life. Thatís why they tended not to commemorate famous peopleís births but rather their deaths. The Church didnít get around to celebrating the birth of Jesus until 400 AD, and even that was, in large part, a defensive parry.

Only two of the gospels even mention the Nativity. Matthew gives it about 300 words, mostly devoted to Herod and the Wise Men. (And now comes word that the murder of all those two-year olds is likely just a myth. Take that, you biblical literalists. This January you can cancel your subscriptions to both Sports Illustrated and National Geographic.)

Anyway, no shepherds in the field or angels in the sky for Matthew. Luke does the birth of Christ the most justice, but even he gives it all of 400 words. From then until now, not too many other long writers have worked the subject very hard.

Painters and poets and minstrels, that's another story entirely. The Nativity makes a great spectacle. Art, poetry and music are much more about the moment. Thereís nothing going on in any Nativity play until the last scene, and then: Voila, a painting!

John Milton wrote possibly the definitive Nativity poem in 1629: On the Morning of Christís Nativity. This is the guy who gave us our conceptions of hell, angels and, of course, the devil (surprisingly human). The gospels talked about these things, but Milton brought them to life, gave them form and physical image, breathed personality into them. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John may have been divinely inspired, but Milton was a better writer.

Beyond Milton, a legion of other English poets have celebrated Christ's birth in verse including Robert Southwell, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Francis Quarles, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Joseph Beaumont, Henry Vaughan, Rowland Watkyns and Mildmay Fane, Second Earl of Westmoreland. Many of them more than once. Interestingly, Milton's Nativity comes in only fifth on this modern ranking of Christmas poems.

Top 5 Christmas Poems ranked by www.celebrations.com
1. A Visit from Saint Nicholas by Clement C. Moore
2. Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
3. Christmas Trees by Robert Frost
4. A Christmas Carol by Christina Rossetti
5. On the Morning of Christ's Nativity by John Milton

Only two of those are Nativity-centric, which suggests something else that might be going on. Music, art and poetry are older, novels a relatively recent invention. Way back when, our culture was more overtly religious. Our European ancestors weren't better people, they just didn't have much else going on other than religion.

Until the Renaissance (and the invention of the printing press), religion was basically the center of consciousness. The liturgical calendar served as the nexus of daily existence. Along with debauchery and incest, drinking themselves into a stupor when they had the time, and working themselves into an early grave when they didn't. Or just getting pointlessly killed when they got in the way of some nobleman.

But the mindset of writers nowadays is in a whole 'nother place. From Dickens to Dostoyevsky to Truman Capote, writers like to wallow in human misery even when they're celebrating the triumph of the human spiritóand actually the latter doesn't happen that often. What do guys like Hemmingway know about Christmas? They're way too busy being desperate to be uplifting. Their idea of a good day is getting ground into dust while keeping your dignity. Like The Old Man and the Sea, a story I never did understand. But presumably these guys represent a popular, more secular mindset. What modern writers write is what modern people like. Or maybe the people who put this list together were just idiots.

Shakespeare mentioned Christmas only three times in but two of his plays and the Nativity only once (Hamlet). And no modern he. Though his plays were in verse, each one is, after all, a long story. Not a lot from his fellow dramatists on Nativity themes either. Drama does offer the example of the iconic Nativity Play, even if there are no famous ones left over from antiquity.

The Nativity by Piero della Francesca (1470-5)
The Nativity by Lorenzo Lotto (1573)


You might think of Hollywood as the triumph of spectacle over plot, but movie makers have tended to follow the prose writers in their treatment of Christmas. And why not? Everybody thinks they're a writer out there. And better than the real ones. Lots of warm sentiment and blue melancholy and even the miracle of hope in the face of insurmountable odds, but in the hundreds of Christmas films made for the big screen and TV, there are precious few nativity-based stories.

Check it out for yourself. This yearís Christmas website features an interactive Christmas movie search engine for you to play with. Yup, toys! Look up your favorite movie, find out who directed it, who starred in it, when it was produced and whether the lords of movie ranking thought it was any good. Click here.

There's plenty of Nativity paintings. From the Renaissance period mainly, but that's when a lot of great art was done. Although a lot of Nativity art may not be great art. None cracks the top ten of Listology's greatest paintings list. Rubens's The Adoration of the Magi comes in at #20. www.listology.com

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently published the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers list of the most popular holiday songs for the past five years, based on number of performances. It shows a similarly secular cast. Little Drummer Boy is the only Nativity-themed opus to crack the top ten. But one suspects something else is afoot here. Maybe they're only counting songs that royalties are still being paid on.

ASCAP's Most Popular Holiday Songs
1. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), Mel Torme, Robert Wells
2. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie
3. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
4. Winter Wonderland, Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
5. White Christmas, Irving Berlin
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne
7. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, Johnny Marks
8. Jingle Bell Rock, Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe
9. I'll Be Home For Christmas, Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram
10. Little Drummer Boy, Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone
www.pittsburghlive.com

In that same article, the Pittsburgh paper gives a brief history of a bunch of popular carols far more Nativity focused, including Hark!, The Herald Angels Sing, I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In, Little Drummer Boy, Joy to the World, O Come, All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night.

Last year's website offered details and history for almost 100 Christmas carols and songs. The extract is reproduced here. (So you don't have to read about last year's Christmas all over again just to get to it.) Tons of Nativity themes in that list. Click here.

Two personal favorite modern Christmas oeuvres are Linus's recitation on the meaning of Christmas from A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Harry Belafonte calypso hymn, Mary's Boy Child. Both, obviously, Nativity based. Linus's soliloquy nails the Christmas Story of Luke, and Belafonte's Jamaican Creole adds a deep poignancy to the same story. It's also a beautiful song beautifully sung.

Belafonte, an extremely well-spoken man, came by his regional patois somewhat honestly. He was born in New York but lived for a time with his grandmother in Jamaica. In the '50s was dubbed the "King of Calypso" in recognition of works like The Banana Boat Song (Day-0).

Mary's Boy Child was written by Jester Hairston, who, from the name, you'd figure was hard core Jamaican. But you'd be wrong. He was born in North Carolina, raised in Pittsburgh (probably where he got his appreciation for Christmas music), graduated cum laude from Tufts University and studied music at the Juilliard School.

Hairston's parents had been slaves, and he played Jim Bowie's (Richard Widmark) loyal slave, Jethro, in the 1960, John Wayne-directed release of The Alamo.

An intriguing coincidence, but Hairston was really hard-core Hollywood. He acted in over 20 films, from the early Tarzan movies to In the Heat of the Night. He had a role in the original Amos and Andy radio show. (And you thought those guys were all white.) He did TV roles (including on Amos and Andy) as well. But the great bulk of his work involved composing, arranging and choral conducting. He died in 2000. I don't remember when he was born, but it was a long time ago. See, the story's on the back end.