That good old Christmas depression has lifted, or at least there’s a break in the clouds for me, so I’m trying to get in the spirit by sharing some Christmas items.
Simple Gifts is the name of a Christmas special developed by PBS circa 1977. It features six animated vignettes all tied together around the theme of Christmas. Prized by those who know it, it seems all the more valuable for having largely disappeared. Great animation, fine art, and it deals with themes which are eternal, as well as events etched in the collective consciousness of generations. But let’s lead into it with bits & bobs about Benjamin Bowmaneer…
British folk artist Kate Rusby, in her 2016 release Life in a Paper Boat, begins with that very song:
It’s an old English ballad sometimes classified as “Roud #1514.”
Have you heard how the wars began,
Have you heard how the wars began?
Have you heard how the wars began
When England fought to a man?
And the proud tailor rode prancing away.
The song can be taken as an ironic commentary on the transformation from peacetime to wartime, when many a peaceable tradesman might suddenly find himself called to be a soldier. Kate Rusby’s version sounds surprisingly modern; but let’s see how that same ballad was used to introduce a remarkable vignette on the subject of the Christmas Truce of December 25th, 1914, as recounted by Captain Sir Edmund Hulse:
The way the music was edited to create a counterpoint between English and German Christmas carols is fantastic, and contributes much to the expressive power of the vignette. (Compare this scene from Casablanca depicting dueling anthems.)
Eliza Carthy does a simple piano-and-voice version of “Benjamin Bowmaneer”:
Haunting, but perhaps a bit gloomy for Christmas. More cheerful is the song whose name mayhaps inspired the title of the PBS special: “Simple Gifts,” here sung by Judy Collins (from her 1970 album Whales & Nighingales):
It’s a traditional Shaker song from 1848, later popularized by composer Aaron Copland in his 1944 orchestral suite Appalachian Spring, here performed by a local band known as The New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein (We wish them well!):
Of the animated shorts comprising Simple Gifts, the one perhaps best remembered and garnering the most praise is “No Room at the Inn.” Created by R.O. Blechman (who also produced the special), and faithfully inked by fellow animator Ed Smith, it remains for me a high watermark in hand-drawn animation, due to its simplicity and power:
I cannot say enough about this piece, which is such an eloquent, wordless retelling of the Nativity story, with totally excellent music by Arnold Black using early instruments. If the omnipresent A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) humorously bemoans the commercialization of the birth of Jesus, “No Room at the Inn” does so poignantly, with a richer set of observations about the human condition and the eternal themes surrounding the Nativity. We see King Herod troubled by the light which steals into his bed chamber and cannot be shut out:
He arises in anger and dispatches his army to slay every male infant in Bethlehem, in the vain hope that doing so will preserve his own corrupt reign. Blechman portrays the commercial hostelers as two-faced, bending to whatever cause will line their pockets. When Bethlehem is abuzz with pilgrims, they put up signs welcoming pilgrims. When Herod’s army invades, they welcome the soldiers with equal gusto. To see a sign saying “Nativity Town” lying in a burning heap is a sad commentary on the fickleness of human affection for Avataric beings. Truly, “You are now leaving Bethlehem” (wonderful anachronism!).
As Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus flee into Egypt, they carry practically nothing with them and are confronted with a familiar phenomenon: The road they travel is solitary, but is lined on either side with hotels welcoming rich merchants.
“No Room at the Inn” is drawn in a minimal style and contains no dialogue, yet it’s one of the most moving tellings of the Nativity tale I’ve ever seen. In one sense it’s the epitome of modern art, with the theme reduced to bare essentials (like Picasso’s successive drawings of a bull). Yet, the music by Arnold Black adds tremendous warmth, hopefulness, a sense of walking onward through adversity, and some sadness or wistfulness.
There’s also a connection with the world of Charlie Brown, because when hostelers rudely refuse Joseph, their voices are represented by discordant brass, not unlike the peevish teacher in Peanuts cartoons, played by a muted or “wah-wah” trombone.
“No Room at the Inn” has remained close to my heart since I first saw it 35 years ago because it captures essential spiritual truths in a simple but powerful way, and is an exquisite artistic creation which spans great distances between the ancient and modern worlds. In that sense, it’s a distant cousin of Steve Reich’s Tehillim, whose hallelujahs seem to come dancing and echoing to us from a corridor in time which is thousands of years wide:
Not Christmas music, but no less joyful than Handel’s Messiah for being sung in Hebrew. These different examples of ancient and modern art remind me of the immortal words of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy:
Never see anything with your mind’s eye. See everything with your heart’s eye. Then you will see that everything is beautiful. Art is meant for man’s understanding. It is meant for man’s blending with the inner life’s inner ecstasy.
This is Michael Howard wishing you (in the words of Colleen Dewhurst): “a Christmas of simple gifts, richly bestowed and warmly received.” Special thanks to those who have helped me survive a difficult year through their kindness.
Sidebar: The Christmas Truce of 1914
The Christmas Truce has come to be regarded as iconic, perhaps because it offers hope for peace and underscores the arbitrariness of the circumstances which turn brother against brother. The Truce has been explored in productions both documentary and dramatic because, in the middle of a war, peace broke out.
The Truce was re-eneacted in the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War, but the scene is not very effective because it quickly degenerates into drinking, smoking, and idle chitchat. More inspiring is this clip from the 1996 mini-series The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century:
In December 2014, the UK’s Sainsbury’s supermarket chain produced a 3:40 advert which also re-enacts the Christmas Truce:
Another version (courtesy Gogglebox) shows the reactions of selected British viewers:
An editorial in The Guardian by Ally Fogg decries the ad as “a dangerous and disrespectful masterpiece,” but it clearly touched the hearts of some viewers, and is considered a stroke of marketing genius, having gone viral on YouTube.
For more on the Christmas Truce, see this archived links page. There are a number of songs about the Truce, with some lyrics collected here. Part of Cormac MacConnell’s “A Silent Night, Christmas 1915” goes:
Oh silent night, no cannons roar,
A king is born of peace for ever more.
All’s calm, all’s bright,
All brothers hand in hand,
And that young soldier sings
And the sound of peace still rings,
Though the captains and the kings build no man’s land.
Here’s the full song sung by his brother Mickey MacConnell:
As for “Benjamin Bowmaneer,” according to the band Colcannon (which also does a version), the song appears “in the Penguin Book of English Folksongs — the old, and now rare, edition edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.E. Lloyd.”
Trivia: Does Arnold Black’s music for “No Room at the Inn” remind you of anything? At times, it reminds me of “Up, Up and Away” — the part that goes “Would you like to ride, in my beautiful balloon?” And as folk tunes go, “Benjamin Bowmaneer” somewhat resembles “Spanish Lady.”
For Further Reading/Viewing
“The Gutsy Scribbling of R.O. Blechman”
R.O. Blechman CBS Christmas Message (1966)
“Jesus is Born–in a world of many faiths”
Brother Jesus by Sri Chinmoy