Nativity book, music mix races for heavenly harmony

It’s a very different take on a beloved Christmas song and the greatest story of all time. And it’s a version every child needs to see and hear.

“O Holy Night” is the retelling of the nativity, illustrated with black characters and accompanied by a CD of the Boys Choir of Harlem. Visually illuminating and aurally stunning, it is culturally long overdue.

Pictures by Faith Ringgold testify to the universality of Christian faith, and the mixture of races in the angel’s choir brings home the fact there is no real racial division when it comes to true heavenly peace.

Beautifully designed and executed, the texts of the songs presented by the Boys Choir are set forth as strikingly as the illustrations themselves, in bold and flowing script. That is quite an accomplishment, given the eloquence of these paintings, which show Mary, Baby Jesus and his followers in scenes totally different than the accepted visions of Madonna and child — but that remind us that nativity scenes can go far beyond the Italian Renaissance.

It took considerable vision to get beyond the stereotypes, and publisher HarperCollins is to be lauded for this landmark achievement. At $18.99, the book and CD are an investment in history as well as art.

As for the CD, featuring five carols, it invites listeners to describe it with a cliche, yet in this case the cliched description is so accurate there is no choice but to use it. The word “unique” is vastly overused, but here it is undeniably appropriate.

Ranging from blues and gospel to grandly classical sounds, the arrangements showcase the awesome virtuosity of the inner-city choir. Spirited, immaculately phrased and sung with jewel-tone beauty, these carols set the highest of performance standards.

On the back of the book is the advice, “Listen to the singing as you enjoy the paintings. Feel the spirit.” This is wise advice, because the music and art are inextricably intertwined, and each enhances the other. The inherent spirituality of the story reaches its greatest heights when these two elements are combined.

To encounter “O Holy Night” is to marvel anew at the Christmas story. Nowhere else in memory has such an effort been made to touch all children, regardless of race or origin. This is an endeavor that introduces important ideas — ideas that need to become a part of the mainstream for all of us, children and adults.