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Is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” a Christmas Song?

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

How about Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” instead?

You might wonder if these are trick questions….

Cohen’s song was made famous by both the movie “Shrek” and the rendition of it by k. d. lang during Vancouver’s Olympic Games (although John Cale and Jeff Buckley are usually credited with the first influential covers).

Associating it with Christmas, however, was the work of the a cappella group “Pentatonix” on their seasonal album released some years ago.

The song seems wildly inappropriate for the Advent season. Cohen reportedly wrote 80-some verses, but none of those I’ve heard or read have anything seriously or sacredly to do with the Nativity.

As singers now rather desperately try to find new material for the inevitable Christmas album (Disney's "Let It Go" is associated with snow and ice, so...), they may well be grasping at anything that sounds religious. “The first verse of Cohen's song includes the words ‘David,’ ‘Lord’ and ‘Hallelujah’—excellent! Let’s include it.”

Which brings us to Handel, whose oratorio originally had nothing to do with Christmas, either.

“Messiah” premiered in Dublin in April (not December) 1742, and the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” concludes the second part of the three-part work, the part that focuses on the passion, not the birth, of Christ.

Many choirs, alas, end their performances with that literal show-stopper. But a truly Biblical perspective requires the third part’s treatment of the things to come. Indeed, the “Hallelujah Chorus” draws its lyrics from the Book of Revelation.

Clearly, however, the Coming of Jesus at Christmas is properly understood only in the context of the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of days. So a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” reminiscent of the angels’ song to the Bethlehem shepherds, nicely suits the season after all.

What, then, about the rather glib appropriation of Cohen’s song—and I say that sadly as a fan of “Pentatonix”? (By the way, the most sublime version of "Hallelujah" I've come across is Chris Botti's, on his, yes, Christmas/winter album of instrumental jazz.)

The question prompts me to go back to the estimable oeuvre of historian Gerry Bowler (a/k/a Gerald Q. Bowler, Ph.D., King’s College, University of London). In his three volumes on Christmas, the latest of which is Christmas in the Crosshairs, Bowler constantly challenges us to consider just what in our Christmas lore is truly consonant with Christianity and what really isn’t.

The media lit up about an American pastor yelling his way into shopping malls to bring the good news that Santa Claus isn’t real. One likes to think that he originally hoped his audience would receive his message with joy, abandon the pagan Gift-bringer, and give their hearts to the Babe of Bethlehem. But after a few rounds of crying children and furious parents, one would think he’d have gone away to reconsider his evangelistic approach.

Dr. Bowler helps us see that jolly old St. Nick is, indeed, a complex mixture of European folklore, Christian history (about both St. Nicholas of Myra and the Christ child), American social control (to domesticate Yuletide from lower-class excesses), general sentimentality (think Hallmark TV specials) and global commercialism (as the world’s biggest festival, ripe with pecuniary possibilities).

Just because someone decides to associate something with Christmas, then, doesn’t mean it truly reflects the “reason for the season.”

So before I cue up any version of “Hallelujah” this Christmastime, and before I hang up greenery, or stockings, or tree ornaments, or mistletoe, I will consult Dr. Bowler’s references and try to truly honour Jesus Christ on his birthday.

Because if I don’t decide on the appropriateness of this or that song, decoration, or ritual, other people will be very glad to decide it for me.

And they may not be entirely motivated by the Christmas spirit.

UPDATED: 15 December 2023


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