In his Christmas sermon this year, the Bishop of Shrewsbury describes John Lennon's ghastly dirge "Imagine" as "heart-chilling". Here's what I had to say about it, and about secularism and a common culture, in the Christmas issue of The Spectator a decade ago:
At my daughter's school this year, the holiday concert concluded with John Lennon's "Imagine". The school had thoughtfully printed the lyric on the program, and the teacher, inviting the parents to sing along, declared the number summed up what we were all "praying" for. Indeed. The droning vamp began, and John's anthem for cotton-candy nihilists rent the air:
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today ...
Ah, that's the message of the season, isn't it? Back in the Sixties, John opined that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ, which was a wee bit controversial in those unenlightened times but which appears to be no more than a prosaic statement of fact as far as the music department's priorities are concerned. These days, "Imagine" has achieved the status of secular hymn, no doubt because of its inclusive message:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too ...
Hey, happy holidays!
You may say he's a dreamer, but he's not. A couple of years ago, it emerged that Lennon was a very generous contributor not just to organizations that support and fund the IRA, but to the IRA itself. He could certainly imagine there's no countries, nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too, but until that blessed day he was quite happy to support a religiously discriminatory organization that blows up grannies at shopping centres in order to get out of one country and join another. How heartening to know that, though he grew rich peddling illusory pap to the masses, he didn't fall for it himself.
"Imagine" didn't go over wild with the parents, who mumbled along unenthusiastically. To be honest, I'd prefer John and Yoko's peacenik dirge, "(Happy Xmas) War Is Over", though that might be a little premature and anyway that song suffers from the disadvantage of mentioning Xmas. On the radio you can hear "Frosty" and "Rudolph" and James Taylor's new post-9/11 version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", but anyone with young children finds themselves exposed to a strange alternative repertoire of unseasonal favourites. My friend Tammy emerged from her daughter's kindergarten concert in a rage: not just no Christmas carols, but no "Jingle Bells". The only song she recognized was Lionel Bart's spectacular melisma pile-up from Oliver!, "Whe-e-e-e-ere Is Love?", which is not designed to be sung en masse. "They sounded like they were dying," she fumed, before going off to beard the school board, who explained that "Jingle Bells" had been given the heave-ho on the grounds that it might be insensitive to those of a non-jingly persuasion.
On balance, I prefer the approach of the London Borough of Brent, one of Britain's sternest loony-left councils but far more sporting than the Scrooge-packed school boards across the Atlantic. Back in the Eighties, Brent decreed that it would permit municipal performances of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" as long as they were accompanied by a couple of non-heterosexist choruses of "I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus". That's a lot less vicious than replacing the entire seasonal repertoire with obscurantist dirges for solstice-worshippers. Anyone can St-Nix "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", the hard part is finding something to put in its place.
There are very few good Hannukah songs, never mind Kwanza or the Islamic festivals of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The reason for the dearth of Hanukkah songs is that for most of the last century the Jews were too busy cranking out Christmas songs - Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas", Mel Torme wrote "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire)", Jerry Herman "We Need A Little Christmas", Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and "The Christmas Waltz", Johnny Marks "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer", "Have A Holly Jolly Christmas", "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" and a zillion others. As far as I know, the only Christian to offer to return the compliment was stiff-necked Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah (whose "Come To The Manger" has been recorded by Donny Osmond). Senator Hatch confirmed to me during his short-lived presidential campaign in 1999 that he was working on a Hanukkah song. I don't know whether he's finished it, but I would have to say on balance that, musically speaking, the Christians got the better end of this deal.
The Jews - the Ellis Island/Lower East Side generation - were merely the latest contributors to the American Christmas. For their first two centuries on this continent, the Anglo-Celtic settlers attached no significance to Christmas: it was another working day, unless it fell on a Sunday, in which case one went to church. It was later waves of immigrants - the Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians - who introduced most of the standard features we know today - trees, cards, Santa. Nothing embodies the American idea - e pluribus unum - better than the American Christmas. This is genuine multiculturalism: If the worry is separation of church and state, the North American Christmas is surely the most successful separation you could devise - Jesus, Mary and Joseph are for home and church; the great secular trinity of Santa, Rudolph and Frosty are for school and mall.
But the new "multiculturalism" prefers to celebrate our differences, no matter the effort required to manufacture them, and so somehow Frosty, the ultimate white male, and Santa, despite a Taliban-sized beard, have become suspect, too. It's no longer about the separation of church and state so much as the separation of neighbour from neighbour, the denial of the very possibility of a shared culture, except, of course for the traditional Santa suit filed by the ACLU over the entirely theoretical offence the holly wreath on the town offices gives to Buddhists or Wiccans.
I see in Ramsey County, Minnesota that red poinsettias have been banned from the courthouse in St. Paul because they're symbolic of ... well, something or other. The flower itself is Mexican and named for James Poinsett, an American diplomat south of the border who discovered it in 1828 and popularized it back home. Nonetheless, it's now apparently the thin wedge of a WASP theocracy, so it has to go. Not poinsettias as a whole, you understand, just the red ones. The flowers were replaced by ribbons, representing "flags from around the world." The ribbons in turn have now been replaced by white poinsettias, representing, er, a flower similar to the traditional poinsettia but in a less insensitive and provocative hue. Discrimination on grounds of creed has now moved on to discrimination on grounds of colour: two Minnesotan middle-schoolers were disciplined because they appeared on stage in their holiday show wearing red and green scarves. And that's the point: in the age of what John O'Sullivan calls "counter-tribalism," you can celebrate anything as long as it's counter to tradition. "Jingle Bells"' only sin is that it's old and American and popular.
We don't have popular popular culture any more but those old-time seasonal songs crossed all boundaries. The Mariah Carey, Placido Domingo, Phil Spector, Reba McEntire, Motown, Bruce Springsteen, and Jessye Norman Christmas CDs all draw from the same limited repertoire - from "Winter Wonderland" to "Silver Bells". In a time when radio stations are ever more narrowly programmed, these are the last songs we all share, and so they naturally run afoul of the hyphen-crazed segregationalists who insist that the only thing we have in common is our lack of anything in common. Even the PC schoolmarms understand that's insufficient - hence the need to elevate "Imagine" to anthemic status in the communal songbook.
I don't want to live in John Lennon's world without countries and religions - neither did he, in his more honest moments. But this Christmas especially is a time to think about what binds us: If you feel "offended" by songs about snowmen and sleighs and donning one's gay apparel, then maybe you're the one with the problem. Imagine that.