MANHATTAN — At this time of year, many in the Diocese of Brooklyn would be preparing their hearts and homes for Christmas get-togethers, door-to-door caroling, and hymns at Christmas Eve midnight Mass.
While this December will see Christmas festivities on a smaller scale due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the Diocese of Immigrants are still finding ways to celebrate their faith and culture safely at home during this time.
For Naomi Charles, the extra time this Christmas is giving her a chance to reflect on what her Caribbean heritage means to her family — and one of the ways she does that is through music. She loves to listen to traditional Calypso, Reggae, and Soca melodies. While Charles enjoys these genres year-round, the parishioner of St. Edmund Parish in Sheepshead Bay says that the secular sounds take on a new meaning come December.
“The music definitely a lot of times doesn’t really mesh with, personally, my religion. I will say, in some cases, it can even be a little bit more risqué than some pop music,” she explained.
“I listen to both traditional American Christmas songs and calypso/reggae songs. Calypso music tends to talk a lot about dancing and drinking on Christmas. American music sometimes speaks about finding romance during the holiday season, the cultural icon Santa Claus,” she explained, “while at Mass we hear more about the birth of Jesus, and the events surrounding that.”
But come Christmas, Calypso style can come with all the joyful grandeur of holiday music, from bells to horns, and lyrics filled with talk of Santa, presents, and bonding with family in warm weather.
“During the holidays, you take a little bit more time to think about family and culture,” Charles explained. “There is a certain song, it’s called ‘Lorraine’ by this old Calypsonian named Explainer, and it comes up a lot this time of year. He’s actually living in New York City,” she explained.
“There’s sunshine and steel pan and stuff like that, and it gets cold here, and if you grew up in the Caribbean, you do not like New York winters,” she said. “That’s definitely a theme that you hear in those songs.”
At the intersection between Caribbean life and Christmas spirit, calypso music takes on a Catholic spirit of community, hope, and joyful anticipation. “I think about it because I’m thinking more about family this time of year,” she added. “It definitely does bring us together and promote that family aspect, 100 percent.”
Still, Charles considers the musical flare somewhat “secular” in comparison to what she’s heard at standard Christmas Masses.
“I don’t know why our society has decided that religious or worship music has to be boring,” challenges Father Frank Black, pastor of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Growing up, the Jamaica-born priest had a very different church-going experience.
“When we were growing up, people would stare at us because me and my family were the only ones really singing, and everybody could hear us,” he recalled.
Now, Father Black’s brother is a music director in Florida. To this day, fellow parishioners seem taken aback by the musical energy and wonder if his brother is a new Catholic.
“Why is it that if you don’t have boring music, they figure you can’t be Catholic?” asks Father Black. “Why on earth is that considered ‘secular?’ It’s not secular, it’s just the way the culture is expressed — in a different way. I mean, we don’t have to do a Gregorian chant.”
His parish proves that faith-inspired music doesn’t have to be boring. “It’s literally our people, nobody stares at anybody for singing out loud here,” he says.
For Christmas Eve Mass, “we just pick out all everybody’s favorite songs … the Top 10 Christmas hits from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the United States and all done with steel drum and djembe and a couple of guitars.”
The festivities usually begin with a traditional rendition of O, Holy Night, and turn into a rhythmic celebration. “When we have the Christmas concert, I like to take my guitar and play Harry Belafonte doing ‘Mary’s Boy Child,’” he said. Earlier this month, Fr. Black watched musician Shaggy perform a calypso-inspired Christmas classic on LIVE With Kelly and Ryan.
“‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas,’ but with more of a swinging beat to it, more of a bounce to it. And they just loved it,” he said.
“That’s what, that’s what we do with regard to the music and the church here.”
This year, due to the pandemic, there will be no St. Matthew’s Christmas concert, but in years past, “the thing is just to do the usual Christmas songs, but a little bit more upbeat, a little bit more bounce to it,” said Father Black. “You have the steel drums going in the background. It sounds like angels singing.”
The style, joy, and sound of Caribbean music create a warm and fuzzy holiday feeling, especially during the pandemic, Charles says. “Right now we’re in a world where a lot of things are very uncomfortable, the music brings comfort and brings us some familiarity of times before this whole thing.”
Music that’s upbeat or exciting, filled with joy or rhythm, isn’t only found outside the Church — St. Matthew’s demonstrates how it’s about bringing together a parish community and making sure that they feel involved.
“It gives people the opportunity to experience the joy of their faith by means of music,” says Father Black.