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A holiday music prescription

They say laughter is the best medicine and I’d say music is a close second. Whether it’s Beatles or Stones, rock or country, jazz or classical, music can lift the spirit, infuse the soul and send us flying. The health benefits of music are many. Mozart helps the infant brain grow and the college student score higher in math. Similar to meditation, listening to music can direct our focus, calm the mind, slow the heartbeat, and even lower the stress hormone, cortisol.

Playing music takes one to yet another level and is one of the only activities that uses all parts of the brain. The Christmas season brings with it some great music, and to my wife’s delight, our children and I start practicing our favorites around Thanksgiving. Not that we really need the practice, but it’s a good excuse to cover up our sentiment. The classics, so jazzy and light, so uplifting and spiritual — aaah, there’s a reason they are classics. Consider some interesting legends and little known history of a few Holiday favorites.

Austrian Catholic priest Joseph Mohr penned one of the most beloved and well-known songs, “Silent Night,” in 1818. The church pipe organ had broken and Franz Gruber hastily composed the music for a tenor, a bass and two guitars. That same night it was heard for the first time at Midnight Mass. The song quickly became a favorite around Austria, then the world, and it was the 1850s before the anonymous composers knew of its success.

“Gloria in Excelsis Deo” was called from peak to peak on Christmas Eve by shepherds in the south of France, announcing the birth of Christ. The song, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” was first published in a carol collection that dates 1855.

“Joy to the World,” penned in 1719 by English hymnist and cleric Isaac Watts, was based on Psalm 98 in the Old Testament. The “Carol of the Bells” was originally a Ukrainian folk song intended to be sung a-capella, celebrating the joyous bounty of the season.

“Adeste Fideles” was written in France around 1750 by British exile John Francis Wade, and a century later British clergyman Frederick Oakeley turned out the English version, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” He translated the song because he felt if congregations had good literary texts to sing, they would sing well.

Modern day composers, such as Johny Marks who wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” provided the songs for legendary singers like Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, who made the Christmas songs into classics. Judy Garland made “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” famous in the 1944 film Meet Me in St Louis. Gene Autry wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus” and his singing made “Frosty the Snowman” a huge hit in 1951.

Even the geniuses of American musical theater, Rodgers and Hammerstein, gave us some great Christmas tunes with “My Favorite Things,” from the 1959 “Sound of Music.” In the stage version, Maria sings a duet with her Mother Superior in the covenant, listing the many things in her life she could not give up as a nun — whiskers on kittens, brown paper packages tied up with string …

George Frideric Handel composed the oratorio, “Messiah” in 1741, and the “Hallelujah” chorus is perhaps one of the most celebrated works of the Christmas season. There is a story told about this chorus that Handel’s assistant walked in to Handel’s room after shouting to him for several minutes with no response. The assistant reportedly found him in tears, and when asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to this movement and said, “I thought I saw the face of God.” Talk about inspiration.

When it comes to Christmas recordings, here are some of our family favorites: “A Very Special Acoustic Christmas” by assorted artists, “My Kind of Christmas” by Christina Aguliera, “Go Tell it on the Mountain” by The Blind Boys of Alabama, “When My Heart Finds Christmas” by Harry Connick, Jr, “Yule B’ Swingin’” by assorted artists, and of course the timeless classic of all classics, “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole.

My prescription for the holiday season is to “eat, drink, and be merry” – eat rich but healthy, drink in moderation, and merrily enjoy the beauty of the songs that celebrate the reason for the season.

Free Press health columnist Scott Rollins, M.D., is board certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call 970-245-6911 for appointments or more information.