Hit & Run with John Colson
December 12, 2013
The Christmas season has long presented, for me, a paradoxical array of conflicting emotions, memories and impulses.
The commercialism of the holiday season has been a source of unease, even disgust, ever since I was old enough to realize that Christmas, as a national pastime, was not meant to be about presents and parties, ersatz emotions expressed on Hallmark cards and guilt-easing philanthropy in the form of coins in a kettle guarded by a faux Santa Claus.
Instead, I came to believe, Christmas should be about the state of humanity and our treatment of one another. I, and others, resent being caught up in a whirlwind of detestable marketing pitches delivered over the TV, radio, the Internet, the blizzard of bulk mailings that threaten each year to overwhelm the U.S. Postal Service and private express companies.
Rather than measure our worth by the trivialities or insincere cheerfulness and well-wishing, we ought to be contemplating the iniquities of all this hype, and the waste of resources that could be put to so much better use.
One of my favorite Christmas memories (setting aside those from childhood) is from 1977, when I lead a news team sent by my college newspaper to Cuba over the Christmas break, to see how the revolution was going two decades after Fidel Castro threw out the dictator, Fulgencio Batista.
The revolution was in trouble, undermined by the vicious U.S. trade embargo that reduced a once-productive and lush island paradise to grinding poverty. But what struck me the most was the lack of any commercial hijacking of the holy day. Despite my antipathy to organized religion (see below) I found a strange, calming solace in this uncluttered atmosphere of low-key observance by village congregations.
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Over the past quarter of a century or so, my conflicted feelings about Christmas have been countered by an unexpected outlet — I have sung in the bass section of the Aspen Choral Society's yearly performances of Handel's "Messiah," appearing in various churches and concert venues around the Roaring Fork Valley.
Now, as I hinted earlier, I am not a religious man, in the sense of belonging to one or another sect of the Christian or any other faith. Haven't seen the sense in it since I was a very young boy.
I have a spiritual side, but it's not exactly a clear pool of faith and acceptance of the mysteries of the Universe. Not at all. It's more like a muddy, creek-fed pond that somehow never comes quite clear and is always ruffled.
But I have sung, nonetheless, thanks to my late, much lamented friend, Raymond Vincent Adams. Founder and erstwhile director of the choral society, he was a marvelously complicated and brilliant man of music and passion who last March shed this mortal coil.
And by singing, I gave a kind of meaning to Christmas that had been lacking in my life, completely divorced of the hype and hard-sell that surrounds us. Singing has provided a tranquility at Christmas time that I may never have felt if not for Ray.
Last week, the tradition he started here was continued, with the 36th annual performances of the Messiah in Glenwood Springs, Snowmass Village and Aspen.
I didn't sing in the chorus this year. Couldn't quite get there, mentally and emotionally, and the two performances I watched convinced me I'd made the right choice. Standing at the back of the chorus, tears welling up unexpectedly, throat closing in grief just as I was supposed to sing out some sacred stanza, I wouldn't have been much help.
Instead, I watched from the audience as the new director, Paul Dankers, guided the chorus through a fine and fitting tribute to Ray's legacy in this valley. It was very soothing to watch, made more so by the isolation of being one in a crowd of mostly strangers, observing their glee and appreciation from deep within the silence of my sorrow at Ray's absence.
Maybe I'll be able to sing again, next year.