It's often said that music is the universal language and that may be particularly true during the Christmas season. No matter where we are or what language we speak, familiar tunes can warm a cold day or lighten an otherwise serious venue. And that's what struck me as I watched groups of tourists – many from overseas – visiting the California State Capitol last December.
They first searched for the governor's office to snap a photo beneath the name above the door (a common occurrence since internationally known movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected). But then they heard the music and curiously wandered back up the hall to find its source – a woman at a keyboard in the middle of the rotunda leading a group in a singalong. Although the visitors may not have understood all the words, their smiles indicated that they had caught a bit of this unanticipated holiday cheer.
The holiday music at the Capitol is a decades-long tradition, occurring at noon almost daily throughout the first three weeks of December. When I worked in a nearby office, a co-worker and I spent our lunch breaks on the balcony of the rotunda listening to the school and community choirs perform, admiring their voices soaring high into the Capitol dome. Seeing tourists happen upon these concerts reminded me of an earlier December in Japan, where on Christmas Eve I caroled with a group outside a church-sponsored hospital.
My brother, who was working in Japan and fairly fluent in the language by then, had written out the carols' words phonetically so that I, too, could sing in Japanese. But as night fell and the verses faded under my dimming electric candle, I found myself singing in English or Latin or Spanish – whatever came to mind – as we continued from one familiar tune to another.
As I glanced at the patients and staff peacefully listening from their open windows above, it struck me that it didn't really matter what language we sang in or even what beliefs we professed. All that mattered was that the joy of the music itself could be heard and felt.
Back at the Capitol I sensed a similar experience for those visiting California from other lands, as they listened to the sacred (and sometimes silly) songs that comprise our winter and holiday repertoire. It was the spirit, not the words, that mattered most.
So if you happen to be in Sacramento some December day, step into the Capitol at noontime, search out the music, and join in the singing, in whatever language you choose.