Christmas is a wonderful time for words and voices. Once a year the spoken and sung sounds of Christmas – those lovely simple carols and bible readings, bring poetry, music and ceremony into daily life.
For the traditionally minded, a Festival of Nine lessons and carols is hard to beat. Begun at Kings College Cambridge in 1918 by a Dean who wanted a more imaginative approach to worship, the service was first broadcast around the world in 1930. It’s now heard and seen by millions, and is the model for services in the Anglican tradition world-wide. Readings may vary, and a new carol is commissioned every year, showing Kings’ commitment to contemporary music, and starting a new tradition.
Contemporary carols were also taught in Sydney at my primary school. A set of Australian Christmas Carols* (with outback settings) was written in the 1950’s and 60’s by William James, who was the first Director of Music at what is now the ABC. His lyricist was ABC staff writer John Wheeler. The attempt to create vernacular carols was worthwhile, and they had pretty melodies, but the words were contrived, and even to a child they seemed poor substitutes for the real thing. Hard to imagine drovers could be ‘blythe and gay’, and that ‘Noel Noel’ would be in their vocabulary. And as for ‘the north wind tossing the leaves’ and ‘the red dust over the town’, why waste time singing about it, or the wretched ‘sparrows under the eaves’ – that was just ordinary life. To me Christmas needed the romance of something happening elsewhere, where they knew how to do these things properly.
Give me the quiet majesty of Once in Royal David’s City, or the vim and zip of Deck the Halls, or a lovely simple Silent Night. Then and now I especially love a lung-busting whack at Hark the Herald Angels Sing (with organ and 500 others). Words are by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, but the triumphal tune is adapted from something by Mendelssohn, who gave us that Wedding March.
A close second on my ‘personal favourites’ list is O Come All Ye Faithful, with the Willcocks descant. Sir David Willcocks has a distinguished musical career and a profound impact on choral singing in the 20th century and since. As Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge he wrote ‘Carols for Choirs‘. Begun in the 1960s, his beautiful versions are now standard for choirs world-wide. Oxford University Press says they’re “the most successful and widely used carol books of the 20th century”, and his collaborator John Rutter says ‘Sir David Willcocks has transformed our musical celebration of Christmas’. Amen to that. I met Sir David when he visited Sydney to conduct the Sydney Philharmonia Choir many years ago, and his charm and skill were memorable. Willcocks will turn 93 on December 30th.
If England has given us the church and the choirs, America provides what’s popular. The poem A visit from St Nicholas (as ‘The night before Christmas’ is really called) was first published in a local paper in Troy, New York in 1823. It gave Santa eight reindeer, and created the jolly, plump, chimney climber that is everpresent in holiday cards, movies, television shows, and malls everywhere. Many children have this as their bedtime story on Christmas Eve. My mother was a terrific reader aloud, and I remember loving its bouncy repetitions and assonances.
America gave us many other Christmas hits: Away in a Manger, (which I personally find soppy with its go-nowhere words and tune), Jingle Bells , bizarrely the first song broadcast from space (in a prank by Gemini 6 astronauts in 1965); and Bing Crosby’s 1941 hit White Christmas, which is still the biggest selling single of all time. Its mix of melancholy and comforting images of home went straight to the hearts of a nation at war.
Apart from the Bible, Christmas has inspired troves of poetry. Unlike those mid-century carols, Australian poets have done well at evoking our real Christmas. The Australian Poetry Library has 441 poems with ‘christmas’ in their database. I especially like Rhyll McMaster’s A Festive Poem whose hot and scrabbly protagonists are so like us all. I’d love readers to tell me which are their favourites.
The UK Poetry Society this year features The Kindness of Trees, written collaboratively with children, which will be on banners around the Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square.
Best Christmas Poems – with thanks to Poetry.org
“A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore (or Henry Livingston)
“Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Noël” by Anne Porter
“For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” by W. H. Auden
“Christmas” by John Betjeman
“Star of the Nativity” by Joseph Brodsky
“Christmas Trees” by Robert Frost
“The Shivering Beggar” by Robert Graves
“Christ Climbed Down” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
“The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman” by Emily Dickinson
“Christmas at Sea” by Robert Louis Stevenson
“A Hymn on the Nativity of My Savior” by Ben Jonson
“Old Santeclaus” by Clement Clark Moore
from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
“Prologue of the Earthly Paradise” by William Morris
“The Mystic’s Christmas” by John Greenleaf Whittier
“Ecce Puer” by James Joyce
“Karma” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
“The Thread of Life” by Christina Rossetti
“Messiah (Christmas Portions)” by Mark Doty
“Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost
“At Christmas” by Edgar Guest
“The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy
“Come, bring with a noise” by Robert Herrick
“Christmas Tree” by James Merrill
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” by John Milton
“A Christmas Carol” by Christina Rossetti
“Heigh Ho, The Holly” by William Shakespeare
“The Burning Babe” by Robert Southwell
“Ring Out, Wild Bells” by Lord Alfred Tennyson
“The Mahogany Tree” by William Thackeray
“A Christmas Carol” by George Wither
“Skating in Harlem, Christmas Day” by Cynthia Zarin
* If you really want to listen to those Aussie Carols, they are available in a recording by the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir, at the ABC shop.
- Carols at King’s (timesonline.typepad.com)