In grade 7, each member of my class had to take a turn at leading the national anthem and Lord’s Prayer. It was easily one of the three things I was most afraid of at that age. The prayer could be done with minimal pain—a bowed head and a mumbled “Our father” was enough. The pain came after that “Amen,” when you had to turn to face the Queen and find the right note to hit that “O”. It was terrifying.
But mostly, I don’t think we thought much about it, any more than we thought about our walk to school in the morning. Maybe over the years, a few kids of Jehovah’s Witnesses would step outside the classroom rather than recognize the national anthem.
In my last year of high school, though, a friend heard a news story of a student in another area who had been suspended for sitting through the Lord’s Prayer. In support, he chose to sit while they read the prayer and played the anthem over the school PA system. He didn’t get into trouble.
In fact, mostly people just laughed. I told him he was being stupid because he was taking a stand about nothing. This other kid didn’t know he was making this gesture, and no one at our school was about to make an example of him.
Once I graduated from high school, the daily ritual disappeared from my life and I don’t miss it. In fact, when I am asked to stand and sing the national anthem, I am mostly annoyed and stand there awkwardly wishing it to be over.
Not all anthems are for countries, and not all songs of praise to countries are anthemic. But some songs become anthems for specific groups. Think about Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Your fist is in the air during that chorus before you even realize you’ve raised it. Probably before you’ve even understood what the hell you’re singing it for.
Why do we do this? As precious as many people find it, the Canadian national anthem is mostly empty platitudes, some of which have unclear meanings. For example, there’s the line about it being our home and native land, but then it talks about how we come from far and wide. Does that mean we come from far and wide across Canada. Or does it recognize that we are a nation of immigrants, which contradicts the “native land” idea? Why does Canada command in all of us, or all thy sons, or whatever dumb line you are attached to, true patriot love. Why do we need to be commanded? What’s wrong with our country that we can’t come to love it on our own?
It’s because of this that I don’t sing the anthem. I don’t get it. I don’t see what singing to our country has to do with anything, especially hockey or baseball or football. Or school.
I suppose what it does is help define us as a nation. We all know the words. Or at least we think we do, until the words get changed. I’ve been through at least two lyric changes, including, back in the 1980s, the insertion of God for some reason. But knowing that tune and sort of knowing the words is something we share. Defines us against the rest of the world, along with the maple leaf and endless cliches about Mounties, syrup and poutine.
Maybe it’s harmless. But if you get a chill down your spine when you belt out that you stand on guard for your country, what evokes that chill? That you belong? That you have an identity?
A friend says it’s about us against them. And this makes sense to me. While Canada’s anthem only hints at it with the whole standing on guard bit, America’s Star Spangled Banner is a war song, its bombs bursting in air. It is one of many national anthems that tell stories of revolution, about being better (usually more “free,”—a word that should be a subject for another post) than what was before. History, after all, is told by the winners.
But it’s more than telling a story of the past. An anthem tells a story of the present. Repetition is an important component of learning, and the values of a nation are summed up in its anthem. Which I guess is why changes to the lyrics generate such acrimony. You kind of believe it when you hear over and over that we are the True North Strong and Free.
Whatever that means. I understand what each of those words mean, but together, all I can think is that it’s a bunch of words that says, “We are this and they are not.”
And what of this true patriot love? First of all, I wonder how many anthems have the word “true” in them—twice! Like we’re not completely confident in the veracity of what we’re singing. But what is love of country? I don’t love my country. I feel attached to it. When I go to another country, sometimes I will see the Canadian flag and feel a little more at ease. I’m proud of certain things that have been done with my taxes, like single-payer healthcare, but surely that’s not love!
I love my family, my wife, people I care about. I even love maple syrup. A lot. Anthems are about something bigger than that, but much less real. Canada is an idea, grounded in territory. It hasn’t always existed. No nation has. But perhaps if we sing out loud enough, that little sense of doubt that the words may not mean very much might just get drowned out by our gusto.