Christmas Music

From the Novel Readings Archives

For me (as for many people, I’m sure) one of the things I like best about the holiday season is its music. I grew up in a house full of all kinds of music, and for about six years I worked part time (and sometimes full time) in what we then called a ‘record’ store, The Magic Flute, which specialized in classical music. Getting out the Christmas records was part of an elaborate set of holiday rituals and meals in my family, beginning with our ‘Advent’ brunch the first weekend in December (Eggs Benedict) and culminating on New Year’s Eve (Chicken Florentine and Pêches Flambées, followed by charades and then banging pots and pans on the front porch when we heard the ships in the harbour signal midnight). For probably a decade, somewhere in between these dates my parents hosted a big carol singing party and pot-luck dinner: as their friends are all both musical and great cooks, this was always a joyful occasion! Music was either playing or being played (and sung) nearly all the time, so it’s no wonder that hearing carols now brings back a lot of memories–some more specific than others.

For instance, we usually sang ‘Children, Go Where I Send Thee’ driving back over the Lions Gate Bridge from my grandmother’s house in West Vancouver after Christmas dinner (we loved Odetta’s Christmas Spirituals). A highlight of the carol sing event was always ‘The Carol of the Bells’ with all its parts. I used to take Joan Baez’s Noel up to my room when I wanted some quiet time. As a die-hard Joan Sutherland fan, of course I had her Christmas album, and though sometimes I admit her operatic flair is too much for the simpler songs, her version of ‘O Divine Redeemer’ still brings tears to my eyes. (I met her once–but that’s a story for another post.) And of course we had many traditional choral albums, and the Canadian Brass, and Bing Crosby, and Burl Ives singing ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas,’ and a great LP with “Mr Pickwick’s Christmas” on one side and “A Christmas Carol” on the other, read by Ronald Coleman and Charles Laughton (and how fabulous to discover that this is still available! I highly recommend it).

At The Magic Flute, Christmas was a big season, of course. My fellow employees and I used to shudder at the first playing of the Bach Choir Family Carols because we knew we would hear it probably 3000 times before the doors closed on Christmas Eve. The year Kathleen Battle’s A Christmas Celebration came out, it sold like crazy; I recommended it to one woman who came back the next year and sought me out specially to tell me how much she loved it (I love it too, especially its version of ‘Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,’ though lately I have been listening more to the Christmas album Battle recorded with Christopher Parkening, Angel’s Glory, which includes what I consider the most beautiful recording of ‘Silent Night’ ever made). One of the biggest issues every year was which recording of Messiah to recommend. Opinions were always divided between ‘original’ and modern instruments; the version with the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner was a big seller. To soothe our nerves during quiet spells, my colleague Mandy and I used to slip on George Winston’s December.

Music is still essential to all holiday festivities, as far as I’m concerned. We got out our current stash of Christmas CDs this week. A lot of my old favourites are in the collection, along with ones that evoke holiday memories for my husband (Andy Williams, for instance, and Jo Stafford). We enjoy the Boston Camerata’s Renaissance Christmas and the hyper-traditional O Come All Ye Faithful with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; On Yoolis Night by the Anonymous Four will undo any damage wrought by long days at work–or at the mall, which is equally likely this time of year. There are now, too, albums that evoke memories, not of our childhoods, but of our childrens’, such as Loreena McKennit’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away and Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong. We have rituals of our own, including decorating the tree while listening to Michael Bawtree’s wonderful recording of A Christmas Carol (available only by private sale at this time, as far as I know)–and when we gather in the morning for our own ‘Advent’ brunch, the first thing we will do is to put on some Christmas music.

I do think sometimes about the incongruity of an atheist embracing Christmas. But then I think of all the sacred music–and art, and architecture–that brings so much aesthetic and emotional pleasure the rest of the year, and I feel reassured that there is no hypocrisy in loving the music even though I do not believe in the specific doctrines it sometimes expresses. After all, when the overall worldview for so long was overwhelming theistic, it is inevitable that art and music should have taken religious form; to turn our back on these great achievements because they belong to a different mentalite is to turn our back on the past simply for being the past. I think, too, of George Eliot’s attitude, expressed implicitly and explicitly in so much of her fiction–that, as she wrote in a letter in 1874, “the idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is the ideal of a goodness entirely human.” I feel the same about the “Christmas” spirit: it’s really just the human capacity for love, charity, forgiveness, and generosity (not to mention reverence, sacrifice, and inspiration) that’s being celebrated, with nothing supernatural about it. The feelings evoked by carols such as ‘Silent Night,’ ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,’ or ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ (to mention just a few of my personal favourites) are really no different from the feelings evoked for me by any beautiful music, and the fundamental ideals of peace on earth and goodwill to men do not in fact require (and may even be hindered by) the specific myths of Christianity. And yet that tradition (as George Eliot acknowledges) for centuries provided a key framework for the development of these ideals (if not their perfect realization–indeed, quite the contrary, as history shows). And so I’m quite comfortable with the secularization of Christmas, which seems to me consistent with the goal of recognizing in ourselves–claiming for ourselves–those qualities most important to making the world a better place. It’s not God who blesses Tiny Tim, after all, it’s Scrooge! Why tie ourselves to the Christian calendar, then? Well, just as Christian traditions were superimposed on pagan and other rituals, so too our modern values and ideas are incorporating old ways and turning them to our own purposes. And the music really is beautiful–so I sing along, rejoicing.

What about you? What holiday albums bring back your fondest memories? Is there a song or a singer you can’t do without at this time of year?

(Originally posted December 6, 2009)

5 Comments to Christmas Music

  1. Don Hackett's Gravatar Don Hackett
    December 5, 2010 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your version of Christmas and Christmas music. I have thought that bumper stickers saying “God bless us one and all” might be a gentle antidote to the “God bless America” foolishness–what do they think God did with Himself before 1776.

    My childhood Christmas included Christmas Eve dinner at my grandparent’s farm, with oyster stew and shrimp aspic. They had an album of 78′s of Bing Crosby singing Christmas songs. Twenty years later, at he intermission of Arsenic and Old Lace, that album played and I recognized it immediately.

    After I married, my wife helped bring me back into the Christmas spirit, and part of that was gathering a collection of music. The Joan Baez was an early and current favorite, and the John Eliot Gardiner was my first and still favorite Messiah. I like December, but my wife finds it too solemn.

    Another early favorite was The Holly and the Ivy by the Scottish National Orchestra Chorus. Most classical Christmas albums sound too precious to me; this one puts all the resources of the classical orchestra and chorus in the service of joy, for friends, food, a warm fire, and the possibility of redemption. This was the first thing I bought on Amazon UK; it’s now out of print there and available only used.

    Emmylou Harris’s The Light of the Stable is still a favorite after 32 years: excellent musicians; sweet backup singers; a heartbreaking voice; and taste, always on the right side of the line between sentiment and sentimentality.

    Carla Bley’s Carla’s Christmas Carols came out last year, and is becoming a favorite this year. Ms. Bley is a jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. On Carols she works with an orchestra that includes a brass quartet, and mixes the solemn with playfulness.

    This has gone on long enough, but I still want to mention a few more favorites: Wassail! Wassail! Early American Christmas Music by the Revels; Jingle Bell Swing, late 50′s jazz repackaged with swing and reissued; Boston Camerata’s American Christmas; Anonymous 4′s Wolcum Yule; and A Slack Key Guitar Christmas, produced by George Winston and a good companion to December.

    For the past my favorite song has been Merry Christmas Baby by Otis Redding with Booker T and the MG’s–sweet joy.

  2. Wendy Cutler's Gravatar Wendy Cutler
    December 6, 2010 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    I was thinking it irreverent, not to mention irrelevant, to mention how much I’ve been enjoying playing Let it Snow and White Christmas on ukulele (we’ll be playing them as Scandinavian dance tunes), but then I was so pleased to see Don mention the Slack Key Guitar Christmas. Ukulele and slack key guitar both evoke Hawaii for me, definitely a nice warm feeling. Thanks, Don. I’ve enjoyed the tune previews for that album, and now I’m listening to a Hawaiian singer I met last year sing White Christmas.

    One album I really like is We Three Kings, by the Roches. I think it’s “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” that they do with a Brooklyn accent (I might be off by a borough or two) that I remember most, but I enjoy most all their arrangements.

  3. December 6, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Lovely comments, both of you, and now I will have to see if I can round up the ‘Slack Key Guitar Christmas’–certainly something I never would have thought of on my own! This year’s new CD for us was Yo Yo Ma’s Songs of Joy and Peace. So far I’m ambivalent about it, but I haven’t had much chance to sit quietly and listen.

  4. December 7, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Hey, congratulations on being posted up at Open Letters. Anyone who needs a Christmas music uplift is welcome to stop by my place, if you haven’t seen the “flash mob” clip yet. As for individual songs, I’ve always found that the slow melancholy of “The Holly and The Ivy” is unique. That line about the deer always arrests me….

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