Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Not for Christmas

I went to the grocery store on my way home from work today. Christmas songs were shuffling on the sound system, and I was enjoying that, even singing along in secluded areas of dairy products and canned goods. Then a song came into the mix that gave me pause; it was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

I've noticed lately that this song creeps into some Christmas settings. I guess because it contains the word "hallelujah" people think it's a Christmas song. Well, I'm here to say that it's not. It's a beautiful song; it's just not a Christmas song.

Here are just a few of the reasons I hold this opinion:

1. The word "hallelujah" is not an automatic Christmas reference.

The word derives from the Hebrew and basically means "Praise the Lord."

Even the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah—often heard at this time of year—was not written to celebrate Christmas. The oratorio Messiah is an overview of the whole story of Christ. There are sections of it that are about the Nativity, but the Hallelujah chorus is not one of them. The Hallelujah chorus celebrates the post-Resurrection and -Ascension lordship of Christ. The words come from the book of Revelation.

The two biblical narratives about Christ's birth do not contain the word "hallelujah." Look for yourself at Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:1-20.

2. The lyrics of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" have nothing to do with Christmas.

I gather there are up to 80 versions of the lyrics. Here are the words of the song as sung by Rufus Wainwright; I understand this is the most popular version:

I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?

It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

Hallelujah (repeat)

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

Hallelujah (repeat)

Maybe I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you

I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah

Hallelujah (repeat)

There was a time you let me know
What's real and going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?

And remember when I moved in you
The holy dark was moving too
And every breath we drew was hallelujah

Hallelujah (repeat)

Maybe there's a god above
And all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you

And it's not a cry you can hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah

Hallelujah (repeat)

It's actually quite a lovely song, and it has Scriptural themes and images, but it's not about Baby Jesus.

The most obvious biblical references in the song are to David and Bathsheba and to Samson and Delilah. David played the harp; he saw Bathsheba taking a bath on her roof and had an affair with her; Samson had his strength destroyed when Delilah cut his hair.

The lines about a flag on a marble arch and a victory march make me think of the Nazis, while shooting and outdrawing allude to the genre of Westerns.

I could go on, but I'm not analyzing this richly allusive song, just pointing out that it's not about Christmas, which brings me to my third point.

3. I doubt that Leonard Cohen would compose a Christmas song because—I could be way off base here—I think maybe he's Jewish.

I haven't done any research on the subject, so I could be wrong, but I just have this feeling, this inkling, this vibe that he's Jewish. I'm kind of intuitive that way.

Anyway. Judge for yourself. Here's the beautiful not-Christmas song:

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