Ding dong merrily on high
Christmas means different things to different people. For some, the countdown to the 25th December starts with the first cards in the shops; the first mince pies on sale; the first pantomimes to be marketed; the first decorated tree spotted in a neighbour’s window and the first snifter of mulled wine in pubs or retailers. But it’s not a sight, taste or even a smell that gets me in the mood for Yuletime: it’s music.
Yes, I’m talking about music that can be loosely associated with Christmas. I like a good carol service, but the thing about Christmas is that music springs up all round. So far I’ve attended one concert, Advent Carols by Candlelight, at St Martin’s in the Fields oppositeTrafalgar Square, another at Bush Hall, an old music hall in Uxbridge Road, we’re off to the Albert Hall in a week’s time, and I might even attend our local church on Christmas Eve. Sadly, I can’t sing: I start at one end of the scale, realise I can’t go any higher, and drop to the other. But I’ll still join in.
I wonder what it is that attracts, for all the events I have described so far are completely different. The concert at St Martin’s features a very large professional choir, a superb conductor, an award-winning organist and tunes ranging from Bach to Bruckner. There is nothing quite like the building of voices, gathering like a wave, rising to a crescendo before falling gently back to land. Contrast this with the concert at Bush Hall, where two of my favourite jazz singers, Ian Shaw and Claire Martin, duet on songs from such notables as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, with a few festive fillers in between. The one at the Albert Hall will be different again…but they all have one thing in common: they harness our need to sing, not necessarily in tune, but at the top of our voices.
This is nothing new, in fact carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago. They happened to be pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles. While researching the history of carols, it turns out that the word originally meant to dance to something. And they were not limited to winter, carols were composed and sung during all four seasons, but for some reason the tradition of singing them at Spring, Summer and Autumn has fallen by the wayside.
Early Christians got in on the act, replacing pagan songs with their own versions. A Roman Bishop got the ball rolling in AD 129, stating that a song called Angel’s Hymn should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. It was followed by another written by Comas of Jerusalem in 760 AD for the Greek Orthodox Church. Soon there was no stopping composers throughout Europe who took up the challenge. The downside was that, since these carols were written and sung in Latin, they tended to lack mass market appeal and by the Middle Ages people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas.
It was St Francis of Assisi who we apparently have to thank for changing attitudes when, in 1223, he launched his Nativity Plays in Italy. The performers sang songs or ‘canticles’ and though the choruses might be in Latin, as a rule these new carols were sung in a language that the audience could understand and join in. Small wonder then that such carols spread like wildfire across Europe.
So wherever we choose to sing this Christmas, we are upholding a fine tradition. We may not be going door to door, another custom which seems to have died out, but we will be participating with gusto. I just wonder whether we shouldn’t revert to the term’s original meaning and have a bit of a dance, too.