How I Learned to Stop Kvetching and Make Nice With Handel’s Messiah

How I Learned to Stop Kvetching and Make Nice With Handel’s Messiah

Written by Steven Bryan Bieler

Christmas is approaching with all the subtlety of a runaway tanker train. Pop-up ads, doorbuster sales, inflatable plastic figures on people’s lawns, and the Christmas music machine, starring saints, snowmen, drummer boys, reindeer, elves, orcs, Santa baby, baby it’s cold outside, and the baby in the manger. And let’s not forget the totally uninspired – for example, the immortal “Driving Home for Christmas,” in which the singer makes the following points:

  • He’s heading home for Christmas.
  • He’s driving.
  • He should’ve left earlier because there’s lots of traffic.

There’s none of that noise at Hanukkah, mainly because the Festival of Lights doesn’t give you much to hang your muse on. It’s certainly not something you drive home for. Hanukkah possesses so little significance that it doesn’t even appear in the Bible. We Jews wrote “White Christmas” for the Christians*, but for our own holiday we’re stuck with Adam Sandler rhyming “Hanukkah” with “gin and tonica” and a preschooler’s tune about spinning a top made out of clay.**

* You can also thank us for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” and I’m already tired of this list.

** The main Hanukkah activity of my childhood was firing up the menorah, but my parents often fell asleep in front of the TV before we got to the ceremony. We ended up missing nights. You need 44 candles for one Hanukkah. What are you going to do with the 13 you didn’t use last year? You end up sticking orphan candles in birthday cakes years later.

If you’re asking yourself, how can I write about Christmas music if I’m Jewish, let me reassure you that I am extensively credentialed in this area. I was born before diversity was invented, which means that I was forced to sing Christmas carols in the public schools. I could’ve refused, but if I had they would’ve beaten the Velveteen Rabbit stuffing out of me on the playground. And by “they” I am referring to the teachers.

As an adult I was able to keep the whole business of Christmas music at arm’s length, but then I married one of the not-Chosen. My wife enjoys a healthy diet of holiday musical cheer, beginning December 1 and galloping full-tilt over the fence until New Year’s. She loves surf versions of holiday classics and anything with a saxophone. But her first love in Christmas music is George Frideric Handel’s happy-go-lucky juggernaut, Messiah.

I Knew This Job Was Dangerous When I Took It

Handel, who was of German and British extraction, was a composer of the Starbucks Baroque Blend era. He’s probably dead today – he was a very old man when I knew him – but one thing I remember him going on about was how he invented the show-stopper. In Handel’s case, that would be the “Hallelujah” chorus. He was quite smug about it, too.

Rolling Stone ranks Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus third on their list of the “100 Super Explosive Classical Music Show-Stopping Explosions,” behind Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” but ahead of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” and Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.”

The “Hallelujah” chorus is probably the most often-performed choral work in Western music. It’s incredibly popular at sing-alongs, as it can be learned by basically anyone. 17 percent of the total wordage in the “Hallelujah” chorus is “Hallelujah.” The rest is mostly kings, lords, and conjunctions.

This mighty hymn was given a significant boost in the public consciousness in 1967, when the Red Sox won the American League pennant and their left fielder, Carl Yastrzemski, won the Triple Crown. The result you will no doubt remember was this Handel/Yastrzemski mashup:

Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski!
The man we call Yaz. We love him!
Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski!
What power he has!

Yaz played baseball for 23 years, which is worth a brag but somewhat short of the promise in Messiah: “And he shall bat for ever and ever.”

His Yoke Is Easy (Like Sunday Morning)

Messiah is chock-full of martyrs, prophets, persecution, and resurrection. Pretty much the same stuff we’re still grappling with today. I paid little attention to this story for years because of a) my lack of interest in anything related to Christmas, and b) my lifelong tendency to mishear lyrics.

For example, I only recently discovered that the line Handel wrote was “Every valley/shall be exalted.” I thought they were singing “Everybody! Shall be exalted,” à la Normie yelling “Everybody!” when he walked into the bar on Cheers. I’ll bet that Handel never saw that program. He was more of a Soul Train guy. Other aural miscues on my part have led to fractures in the sacred institution of marriage, as you can see from the following:

A Jew Copes with Christmas

Act I, Scene 1

(The setting: A suburban living room in December. Snow is falling outside. A dog is shedding inside. My wife is playing Messiah. I am puzzled.)

Me: What does cheese have to do with the birth of Christ?
Her: What?
Me: Cheese. What did the Wise Men bring baby Jesus, a cheese wheel?
Her: What are you talking about?
Me: They’re singing, “And we like cheese.”
Her: Are not.
Me: Are too.
Her: They’re not singing “And we like cheese,” they’re singing “And we are like sheep.”
Me: (Pause.) They like sheep?
Her: They don’t like sheep, they ARE LIKE sheep!
Me: They don’t like sheep even a little?
Her: I’ve got a lawyer.

After 35 years of marriage and approximately 2,000 spins around Messiah, Handel’s modest little oratorio has become an inextricable part of my Christmas. I would miss Messiah if my wife stopped playing it. I would certainly miss it if she turned to Mannheim Steamroller or The Grateful Dead Go Caroling. So when I catch myself wondering if I can listen to Messiah shake the shack yet again this season or should I find something to do on the other side of the Moon, I remember what a good friend of mine once said: “Keep singing that Messiah. Builds fiber.”


Header image: George Frideric Handel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

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