|Star of Bethlehem, by Edward Burne-Jones|
Christmas is, and always will be for me, a magical holiday, full of mystery and beauty and mythic significance. I have never known it otherwise, as my family decided before I was born to never subscribe to the consumerism and reductionist mania that seems to have possessed the world and made mockery of the season. We do not give gifts on Christmas day (except for those of "Father Christmas" to the children, in whom I am proud to say I believed until I was thirteen, and whose presence invested the holiday with a magic that refused to leave even when I found out he did not exist). Our "presents" (and only one each) are exchanged on Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas and the day when the three Kings in the legend gifted the Christ-child with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Nor do we have a massive dinner, in which most gets wasted and everybody ends up over-full and inebriated, rather a simple yet festive meal of chicken with apple cider and lots of summer fruit, using a recipe that has family significance. Nor are we religious (rather spiritual and hopeful agnostics). Our family used to be Catholic, but left the faith and the church many years ago. How is it then that I find Christmas to be the most beautiful day of the year?
To me and my family Christmas celebrates a beautiful and inspiring myth – the legend of the birth of Christ (for the story itself is beautiful, regardless of how it has been twisted by the bigoted religious authorities) – as well as the older celebration of the seasons. It is a time to consider death and rebirth, and to rejoice in family love. It is a time to reflect on and connect with the past – for this is a day that has been celebrated for over two thousand years. For my family, it is a time of light, magic, story and song. For these and many other reasons Christmas has been, and always shall be for me, the most mythic time of the year.
Among all the beauties of Christmas – it is song which is most effective in conveying feelings of majesty, magic and myth at Christmas. We have only a few albums, and they have been played every Christmas for as long as I can remember. I truly believe they are the best arrangements, as they get to the heart of the season, exploring the historical, spiritual and universal elements of the occasion; from the Christian to the pagan; medieval to modern – all sung with purity, grandeur and sincerity. Look for no triteness among this selection. Even the oldest songs avoid cliché.
I will share with you a selection below. Some of my favourites I have not been able to find on Youtube (such as Rutter’s version of Silent Night from the “Christmas Star” album) but I have provided a link to Amazon where you can download the tracks for 99c each, should you so desire (and I would truly recommend it).
|I love the exquisite Burne-Jonesian cover of this beautiful album.|
I wonder as I wander
When I was younger, I used not to love this song. As a child, I thought that Christmas ought to be a day of unmixed joy and celebration. Especially because I am not Christian, and do not believe in the literal truth of the Christmas story, I did not feel the beauty and the tragedy at the core of the legend. But as I grew, I came to understand the power and enduring “truth” of story, and to feel the sorrow expressed by the singer of this song.
“I wonder as I wander” deals with the Christian singer’s amazement at the immensity of the generosity of Christ, in being “brought forth to die” for the sake of “poor ornery people like you and like I”. It truly is an incredible thought – that someone would have such love for flawed humanity as to die for them… Although I do not believe that the historical Jesus “died for our sins”, the symbol is a humbling one of ultimate altruism, and even fictional it strikes me with the same sense of wonder and awe, causing me to ponder whether my life is worthy of such a sacrifice, and to resolve to make it worthy.
The singer’s voice is incredibly beautiful – high, cold and pure like starlight. As she sings, I can imagine her, wrapped in a peasant cloak, walking across a snow-covered hilltop, with the black fingers of winter trees clawing the twilight. With every star that shines forth in the darkening sky, she wonders…
We Three Kings of Orient
Now this song has always been a favourite. I have always been fascinated by the “kings of Orient” and their precious, symbolic gifts. As I have been blessed with the gift of vivid visualisation this evocative arrangement of the carol summons for me the most incredible imagery. I can see the kings, with their proudly wondering faces and fixed eyes reflecting the star they follow; see the silhouette of oasis-palms against a starry night sky. In the arrangement of the song, I can hear the jingle and clink of bridles and saddle-ornaments, and almost feel the cooling desert sand-dunes giving up the last of their daylight warmth to the night. In the last verse the song blazes with the fierce beauty and glory of the “star of wonder, star of light/Star with royal beauty bright”. And with the “wandering off” of the song’s ending, I am left with an image of hoof prints in star-lit sand, winding toward the horizon…
Rise Up Shepherd and Follow
This lesser-known carol is one that I have always loved, since earliest childhood. Perhaps it is because I can identify myself with the shepherd – I would not hesitate to “follow the star”, leaving behind anything and everything in pursuit of a gleaming, wondrous goal. As I have grown, I’ve started seeing the carol as an allegory (but nonetheless self-sufficient in its own story, as all the best myths are). We all hear a “call” in our lives to “rise up, rise up and follow” – perhaps an artistic ideal, a story or some other venture – something to which we will dedicate our lives. Although the quest demands sacrifice, the prize is beautiful beyond anything – the resolution of a shining dream...
Veni, Veni Emmanuel
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has some of the most mythic lyrics, harking back to the ancient beginnings of the legend, and the reason for the “coming” of Christ. “O come, O come Emmanuel/ And ransom captive Israel”. The idea of a captive people calling out for a Saviour – a Promised One to lead them from darkness and despair – is a potent one, and one with which I think we can all identify. Anyone who has ever been marginalised, discriminated against; felt loneliness and despair – will particularly resonate with this song.
There are many reasons why I love Libera’s version of this carol best. Firstly, I love that it is sung in Latin. The ancient language calls us as listeners back to an elder time when myth and history were intermingled – a place mysterious and echoing with vanished voices. Secondly, I love the sadness of this version – even in the triumphant last line “Rejoice, rejoice/ Emmanuel shall come to thee/ O Israel” there is intermingled elation and sorrow. This is extremely appropriate to the conflicting emotions evoked by the Christmas legend – joy because the Promised One has come to lift the despair from suffering Israel, yet deep grieving, for in order to save the people, Jesus must sacrifice himself. Finally, the arrangement is just so beautiful: the lone voice of the first stanzas, abandoned as a captive or abandoned Israel – the harmonies like wind on a cold night – and the choir’s powerful, triumphant singing of the last verse in English, which brings us, the present listeners together with the ancient voice of the past. The pure voices of the Libera child-singers sing ethereally from a place of darkness – the darkness and despair in our own souls.
The Corpus Christi Carol
This Middle England carol is Arthurian in its medieval imagery and references to the Fisher King (the eternally wounded knight from the Grail Quest). It is an unusual carol, in that it only references Christ at the very end, and even then indirectly, which has prompted some to theorise whether the wounded knight is actually supposed to be Christ, and the weeping maiden Mary. Personally I prefer to think of it as a “fairy tale”, as Jeff Buckley said about his version of the song (found here). I thrill to the mysterious line “The falcon hath borne my mate away…”
I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas
I love the melancholy and nostalgia of this song. Having lived all my life in a country where Christmas day is usually marked by clear sunlight and summer warmth – I have never longed wistfully after a “white Christmas”, (although I want to experience one sometime in my life). What resonates with me about this song is the line “Where tree-tops glisten, and children listen/To hear sleighbells in the snow”. The idea of longing for a “white Christmas” becomes for me a longing for a magic Christmas – a Christmas where children really do listen for sleighbells, as I did, but as it seems fewer and fewer children do…
Do You Hear What I Hear?
This is the favourite carol of my youngest brother, and it is not difficult to see why, with the “night wind” speaking to the “little lamb”, telling of an angel’s song, using the beautiful description “high above the trees, with a voice as big as the seas”. It has a windy, open joy and wonder in its instrumentals, and Aled Jones sings tenderly, like a parent telling a story...
As well as our trusty three Christmas albums, there are some isolated Christmas carols that I and my family love, in particular:
Jussi Bjorling’s O Helga Natt (O Holy Night)
This carol is always incredibly powerful - it has soaring immensity and beautiful lyrics - and I don't think I've ever heard it sung badly. Perhaps it is impossible for the reductionists to diminish such a glorious song. After all, who can hear the lines "Chains shall he break/ For the slave is a brother", without feeling "a thrill of hope"? In fact - Libera and Aled Jones both sing amazingly beautiful versions (click through on their names). However, Jussi Bjorling's version, sung in his native Swedish, is specially moving and primal.
Loreena Mckennit’s The Holly and the Ivy
This carol has always been a favourite. I cannot adequately express how much I thrill to the magic, timeless lines "The rising of the sun/ The running of the deer". The Pagan influence on the Christmas season is still powerful - perhaps even more powerful and longlasting than the Christian influence (no matter how beautiful the story of the Christ-child), because it is older and more concerned with the movements of earth and cycle of the seasons. Certainly in this song the Pagan elements are stronger and more powerful than the Christian elements. Loreena McKennitt's rendition of the song is haunting and ethereal as dawn mist over a lake, or first light over a thick and secret forest.