DOUG JOHNSON: Welcome to American Mosaic, in VOA Special English.
This is Doug Johnson. On our special Christmas show this week: Church music written by a friend of Special English...And a question about how and why Americans celebrate Christmas.
Why Americans Celebrate Christmas
DOUG JOHNSON: Our VOA listener question this week comes from Ethiopia. Hailu Kassa asks how and why Americans celebrate Christmas.
Christmas Day is December twenty-fifth. But Americans who celebrate the holiday begin preparing long before. They buy gifts for their families and friends. Many make their homes look special. They put colorful lights in the windows and on the outside of their houses. They put branches from evergreen trees on the doors.
Almost every home where Americans celebrate Christmas has a Christmas tree. They buy a real evergreen tree, or a man-made one. They cover it with lights and small objects made of glass, metal, paper or wood.
Tradition says that a kind old man called Santa Claus travels to every house the night before Christmas. He leaves gifts of toys for the children. Family members leave gifts covered with pretty paper for each other under the Christmas tree.
Some Americans open their gifts the night before Christmas. Others wait until Christmas morning. They may go to church or visit friends or family members. They may eat a special holiday meal. Or they may take part in holiday activities for sick or homeless people.
Christians celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus. They believe he was the son of God. Americans of other religions generally do not celebrate Christmas. However, many send holiday cards or gifts to their Christian friends. Some Americans do not observe Christmas as a religious holiday, but they decorate their homes with lights and a tree.
Some people think that the religious meaning of Christmas has been lost. They say people spend too much time buying gifts for the holiday instead of attending church and thinking about the religious meaning of Christmas.
These Americans want to put more religion back in Christmas. This often involves holiday observances in public places. Some people object, however. They point out that the Constitution establishes a separation of religion and government.
A similar problem takes place in American public schools. It concerns singing Christmas songs. This year, the New York Times newspaper reported about a religious music ban declared by a school district in the state of New Jersey. Many community groups criticized the decision. Christians said the schools were trying to take Christmas music away from children.
Other people supported the ban. They said that singing Christmas songs would exclude or offend people of other religions in the community. Still others suggested that the schools include holiday songs from all the different religions. This way students would be learning about other cultures as well as their own.
One school district in the western state of Washington has published rules for holiday time. The schools in the town of Lake Washington say they include the beliefs and music of all groups in the community. Teachers say they are teaching about all religious holidays, not celebrating them. Still, many Americans like to listen to Christmas music. They may listen to songs about Santa Claus or the Christmas tree. Many people also attend church during the Christmas holiday and listen to songs sung by a choir.
This year, Willis Kirk released a new album of Christian church music. He is a jazz musician and an educator. He has played with famous musicians such as Wes Montgomery, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker. He is also the father of VOA Special English writer, Cynthia Kirk. Here is Cynthia to tell us about her father's music.
CYNTHIA KIRK: Willis Kirk's new recording is called, "Rejoice, Rejoice – A Modern Oratorio." It is a musical story about the events leading to the day that Christians believe was the return to life of Jesus Christ.
Willis Kirk wrote all the songs on the album. He calls it a collection of spiritual, gospel, jazz, rap and western classical songs. It includes a large choir, a storyteller and an orchestra. My father calls the Oratorio, "a creation of the spiritual soul in music."
The creation of this work dates from nineteen sixty-eight. My father was asked to perform a jazz religious service for a university in Indiana. But not everyone at the university liked the result. They thought the songs were not traditional enough for a religious service. So he stopped work for a while, but finally finished. Here is one of my father's favorite songs on the album, called "My Jesus Lives."
Another song on the album is called "Hallelujah." The storyteller speaks in rap when the Christian Bible says Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. My father said he wrote "Hallelujah" to show that rap music is universal and can even be used to tell a story in Christian music.
This next song is an example of the individual performances on the album. Everett Greene sings "I'm Going to Wash my Soul."
We leave you now with the title song on the album. It is called "Rejoice, Rejoice."
DOUG JOHNSON: This is Doug Johnson. I hope you enjoyed our special Christmas AMERICAN MOSAIC program. All of us in Special English want to wish you a good holiday and a Happy New Year, too!
Our program was written by Cynthia Kirk and Nancy Steinbach. Paul Thompson was the producer. Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA's radio magazine in Special English.