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Music, emotions and Christmas are intertwined, musicians say

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Christmas carols — even to people who at other times of the year would say they don’t care much about music — are both appealing and compelling because of the emotions they stir and the wide range of sensory awareness present during Christmastime, said two New Orleans professors and church musicians.
“Christmas is a very sensory season — the sounds, the sights, the smells, the feelings” — and all of these elements are intertwined by music, said Becky Lombard, an assistant professor of music theory and organ at NOBTS.
As Christmastime approaches, “we cannot imagine the month of December without the wonderful sounds of Christmas and the emotions those songs stir within us,” said Ken Gabrielse, chairman of the division of church music ministries at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Lombard and Gabrielse spoke during the Dec. 14 broadcast of “A Word for Women with Rhonda Kelley,” produced by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The 30-minute program is a weekly cable TV show on the ACTS network and on WBSN-FM radio station in New Orleans. Rhonda Kelley is the wife of Chuck Kelley, NOBTS president.
Because particular songs have strong emotional ties with the Christmas season, Gabrielse, who is minister of music at the First Baptist Church in Kenner, La., said he always saves a certain two songs until the last Sunday before Christmas: “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger.”
“These songs are universally accepted as the two carols that mean the most to an individual,” Gabrielse said. “They call out something from within the individual.”
“There’s just something wonderful about ‘Silent Night,'” Lombard said. “Peace on earth seems to descend” when the song is sung either corporately or as a solo, “and even the most hard- hearted person will hear ‘Silent Night’ and soften.”
No other holiday is as connected with music and emotion as Christmas. “You can’t imagine a Christmas party going on — or even just a walk in the mall — without the sounds of Christmas at least as some background music, instrumental or vocal,” Gabrielse said.
“Music frames everything at Christmastime” and is a vital part of the holiday season, he said. The music of Christmas “helps us express our feelings for the season, the warmth of the season, and that’s probably why we use music in every Christmas gathering.”
The beauty of the music and the message of the words, “together with the memories of deep emotions that are stirred,” make Christmas music so significant that it is impossible to imagine this time of year without music, Lombard said.
As Christmas is a time to celebrate the Messiah’s birth, this season naturally brings with it feelings of love, joy and a positive spirit, “and because of this we can’t help but sing and play our instruments to express those inner feelings,” Lombard said.
Also at Christmastime “there’s a brotherhood in the air and we feel closer to one another,” Gabrielse said. “Families feel closer and music goes along with all of those feelings. It kind of heightens those feelings, or it expresses those feelings in an interesting way.”
Even secular holiday music during this time of year has more warmth to it, Gabrielse said. “Christmas music — no matter what type — does not tend to depress,” he said. “It uplifts us.”
Despite the fact that the same songs are sung year after year — and that some of the songs, such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Joy to the World,” were originally written several centuries ago — “there continues to be a fresh newness to Christmas every year,” said Gabrielse, who has been involved with church music ministry for more than 30 years. He previously served Southern Baptist churches in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
Both Lombard and Gabrielse start practicing with their choirs and musicians in August for their churches’ Christmas music presentations. Lombard, currently organist for the First Baptist Church in New Orleans, has been a church organist and pianist for the past 37 years. She first began playing Christmas music for other people at age nine. She previously was a musician at Southern Baptist churches in Alabama, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Realizing they will be presenting many of the same songs people have heard all their lives, “we plan for it” and anticipate people’s reactions, said Gabrielse. Both he and Lombard arrange their music in hopes of attracting listeners to hear the familiar music and words in a new way.
“When Christmastime comes, people want to hear those old familiar songs they have come to love, and they don’t mind at all hearing them over and over again,” Gabrielse said.
In fact, he said, “some people don’t feel like it’s Christmas until they’ve heard a certain piece of music,” such as Handel’s “Messiah” or a particular carol or “The Nutcracker Suite,” Lombard said.
While receiving the music is significant, “the main spirit of Christmas is one of giving, and with good scriptural reason,” Gabrielse said.
“Christmastime is a wonderful time for evangelism,” he said since people naturally have an attitude of giving and receiving at this time of year.
“That’s the reason we do programs at the church. People want to go out and participate in a special event with their family, especially an event that involves music,” he said.
“Many evangelical churches want to present the Christmas music so the message is readily available: the gift that God offers them in Jesus Christ. This time of year, many are willing and ready to receive the truth.”
In fact, Lombard said, “Many people will listen to a gospel presentation at Christmas when they won’t listen at any other time of the year.”
When a special musical presentation is available at Christmastime, many unchurched people are more willing to accept an invitation to church than at other times of the year because they’re in the mood to hear holiday music and they don’t think anything about it. On an ordinary Sunday, however, they wouldn’t think of going to a regular Sunday service, Lombard said.
Concerning the giving or service aspect, Christmas gatherings naturally lend themselves to these occasions, Gabrielse said, such as taking small church groups caroling to visit home-bound members.
“There is just naturally a warm spirit to these occasions,” he said, because of the camaraderie, the shared joy and the love.
Gabrielse, whose family in Enid, Okla., grew up taking many caroling excursions, encourages family to share the music together, “not worrying if it is aesthetically pleasing or not.”
Just the activity of being together and singing together “is much more important than trying to do something that is aesthetically pleasing,” said Gabrielse, who for the past several years has invited his church families to make a musical presentation together during the last Sunday evening service before Christmas.

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  • Debbie Moore