One of my favourite aspects of Christmas is the music and I’m not talking about Slade. As children our Christmases were always very musical as, despite having nothing to do with Church, we were always in choirs, Rosie was in various orchestras and Dad in brass bands. Then there were traditions at home like Carols from Kings and all that. I actually envied my friends whose folks made a seasonal pretence of religion, taking them to midnight masses and the like.
Through much of our childhood we didn’t have a car so we used to bus down to the various services and concerts in town and then, generally having missed the last bus home, walk the mile or two so home in the dark and quiet. On such nights there were always shooting stars. At least I remember this being the case – not several in one night, but I would spot at least one or two. We inherited rather manky sheepskin coats from some dead relative or other which R and I objected to wearing except on those December nights when they were fully appreciated. Magical times.
Later on, our high school included a church on its 'estate', so we used to have proper carol services in there, the choir entering in candlelit procession to Once in Royal David’s City. Rosie got to do the solo eventually.
The first carol service we went to at high school I was too young to be in the choir and Mum and I developed a terrific attack of the giggles. My Mum was always nervous about going up to the high school. It was a public school at which we had assisted places so we were relatively poor compared to most of the other girls, pony people, you know? Mum has never had much social confidence and seemed to have this inferiority complex when it came to the parents of my school-friends. She is beautifully spoken but has a bit of a Suffolk accent – what Hal, amateur linguist, kindly describes in myself as peasant inflexions - and imagined that the gold-chain handbag brigade were turning their noses up at her.
The first thing that happened was the vicar arrived and the vicar was enormous, at least seven foot tall and I am ashamed to admit it that this seemed very funny. We obviously had to try and contain it, which of course made it all the funnier. Then of course they opened with the reading about Adam and Eve and the sins of woman, being read with some zeal, and this began to crack us up. Then, as became a tradition in school carol services, we sung the little known carol Three Kings From Persian Lands Afar which none of the congregation knew, but were all prepared to have a go, until the choir broke off into their harmonies and the whole thing fell apart into a rather nasty dirge. Mum and I were sat shaking with suppressed laughter.
However, the absolute killer came when the choir sang Deo Gracias from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Candles which in Church Latin is of course pronounced “Day-O Grassy Arse”. And in Mr Britten’s arrangement involves a great deal of impassioned repetition of the phrase “Grassy Arse”. There was much bladder-compromising hilarity between the two of us in a Church full of pony people.
Later on when I joined the choir and we were back on the bloody Britten, I tried to explain this anecdote to my more refined colleagues, but nobody understood what we'd been laughing about.
The last Christmas before I got ill we did a hell of a lot of carolling. At this time I was a sort of honoury Catholic having rallied them into a protest against Jeans for Genes day at school. I can’t remember why I personally objected to Jeans for Genes day, but I demanded that we be allowed to donate to an alternative charity for the privilege of wearing civies because of our religious beliefs (!) and proposed we should all wear skirts that day as a peaceful protest, which my obedient followers obliged with. The teacher who was in charge of charitable activities was terribly impressed with my passion and later volunteered to run a Religious Education A-Level course with me as her only student. To this day I don’t know whether Catholics should have any objection to the charities that benefit from Jeans for Genes, like Great Ormand Street, Muscular Dystrophy charities and the like – probably not. I think my trouble started when I played the part of Jesus and gained three eleven year-old disciples who kept following me around and asking me for words of wisdom for months afterwards. Kind of went to my head.
Anyway, we did a great amount of carolling with the Catholics, all around the posh houses in town where nearly nobody ignored us and people handed us notes for our pains. Someone gave us thirty quid! But we weren’t bad and had bothered to bring song sheets such that we could complete entire carols. In my memory, we even had a lantern but I think I might have just made that up.
On my fifteenth birthday, Dad, Rosie and I joined an informal bunch of carollers in the Maternity block at Ipswich hospital where R and I had been born – probably Justin too I should think. R and I sang all the harmonies, there was a fairly decent range of voices and we did sound rather splendiferous even if I say so myself. Not a single baby cried that Christmas Eve night – there was one heavily pregnant woman who gave out an agonised scream during The Twelve Days of Christmas, but in fairness it does go on a bit. It was really magical to be there with all this new life around us and to think that my tiny little self might have heard such music a few hours after I was born. It was a very special time and coincidentally, the last carolling I got to do.
Every Christmas morning, Dad and Rosemary would go playing carols all around the wards with the brass band and it occurs to me with hindsight that there may have been far more worthy causes, folks who would have benefited more than the new mothers and bairns from hearing a few sung carols – as opposed to windy carols, which just isn’t the same thing. But my Dad’s office was in the maternity block so perhaps other staff did the same thing on other wards. I hope so.
My favourite carol is probably Oh Holy Night which is just gorgeous.Silent Night, of course, in either English or German is pretty special. My least favourite carol has to be The Little Drummer boy. I can’t stand that carol. I hate it when pop singers and crooners do carols in general – why do they do that? I do like Mike Oldfield’s version of En Dulce Jubilo but that was something quite different.
Since there are so many cat lovers out there, I must recommend the music of Jingle Cats – Christmas carols sung by cats – or at least cat-noises which have been sampled and played with and set against a really basic accompaniment on a very cheap and nasty keyboard. It is awful beyond description, but it must be heard. If you have iTunes search on there and listen to clips, otherwise I’m sure you can buy the CDs from somewhere… ebay has one of their albums up for auction just now.