One of my favourite things about the run-up to Christmas is finally getting to indulge in listening to Christmas music. Not, I hasten to add, the hackneyed tunes of Slade, the Pogues, Paul McCartney etc that get churned out on the radio each year. I have a treasured Christmas playlist of my favourite classic festive tunes by the likes of Sinatra, Crosby, Armstrong, Fitzgerald et al, which I adore; they’re perfect for creating a warm yuletide atmosphere. But there’s something about traditional Christmas carols that makes me feel so peaceful amidst the chaos that generally precedes Christmas. I love the fact that British Christmas carols have given enjoyment to so many generations of people. They hark back to a simpler time – both in my own life (my childhood) and in the world in general. These are my favourite carols. Do leave me a comment and tell me about yours!
I spent much of my late teens and early twenties singing in choirs (talk about a misspent youth, eh?), and I first discovered the Sussex Carol through a Christmas performance of Fantasia on Christmas Carols by that great preserver of English folk music, Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was one of the first to discover and write down this carol, publishing it in 1919 and calling it the Sussex Carol because that was where he found it. I love how cheerful this carol is, the gentle lilt of the 6/8 time signature producing some wonderful melodies – particularly on the words “news of great joy, news of great mirth”. Here it is performed by the legendary choir of King’s College, Cambridge. We always listen to their Christmas Eve broadcast when we’re preparing the Christmas food!
The Holly and the Ivy
This carol makes me think of a crisp frosty morning in the woods. It’s used in one of my favourite films, The Land Girls (1998), when they’re all walking across the fields to church on Christmas morning. It also reminds me of Laurie Lee’s description of carol-singing in Cider with Rosie:
The week before Christmas, when the snow seemed to lie thickest, was the moment for carol-singing; and when I think back to those nights it is to the crunch of snow and to the lights of the lanterns on it.
I love the simplicity of its opening with the solo treble in this version.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Do you remember the days when people used to go from door to door singing carols for a bit of pocket money? It makes me sad that that never seems to happen anymore. I have so many childhood memories of teenage carollers knocking on the door and trawling out “Away in a Manger” at the end of November, only to be told by my dad to come back nearer to Christmas! I seem to remember occasionally singing carols at people’s doors myself, as a child – a forerunner to spending the day, aged about 17 and earnestly clutching my very own copy of Carols for Choirs, singing carols to visitors at the American Museum in Bath with one of the three choirs I used to sing with each week. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was always an enjoyable one to sing. Apparently it’s one of the oldest surviving carols, dating back at least to the 16th century if not before.
In the Bleak Midwinter
This one appeals to my melancholy side. It brings to mind memories of walking home from the station each night in the lovely Cotswolds village where I lived on my own for four years in my twenties. I remember walking up the hill through the village in dark and freezing conditions, and catching glimpses of people’s Christmas trees in their cosy homes on my way past. I loved seeing people’s decorations, yet looking in on those warm scenes from the cold, dark night outside – knowing you have a dark and empty house to go back to – doesn’t half make you feel alone. In this carol, the lines “Snow was falling, snow on snow” remind me of the time when it snowed really heavily for days, and I was stuck at home with flu and nobody to look after me. The Christmas period was always a little crappy as a singleton (I have vivid memories of crying from loneliness as I wrapped presents one December weekend), so I’m glad those days are over. I still love this carol though.
On a happier note, this peaceful carol conjures up all kinds of enchanting childhood memories for me. It makes me think of the lovely 1930s and 40s Walt Disney Christmas cartoons we used to watch (see the opening of this one – they’re so good that I’ll do a separate post on them if I get time). It also reminds me of cold December nights spent leaning out of our open bedroom window listening out for the faint strains of Christmas carols drifting across town on the breeze; the hallmark of the charity Father Christmas on his sleigh that came round all the streets in our town in the run-up to Christmas. It was so magical, hearing the music in the distance, and catching the occasional glimpse of his brightly-lit sleigh and reindeer making their way through the streets on the other side of the valley. Those far-off glimpses were almost more exciting than when the music started to get louder, signalling that it was finally our turn for him to visit our street and hand out sweets.
What are your favourite Christmas carols? Comment below and let me know! :)