More from my Christmas notebook

Favourite Christmas Music

The first has to be the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin, for the sheer joy and celebration of Christmas. It includes traditional carols, familiar and unfamiliar; some great Irish dance music; and a list of guest artists that includes Elvis Costello, the McGarrigle sisters and Jackson Browne, among others. Great fun!

Rockapella is one of my favourites (or five of my favourites?) anytime,
and their first two Christmas CDs are no exception. The first, Rockapella
Christmas, comprises great arrangements of modern Christmas songs,
including “Silver Bells,” Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song”  (“Chestnuts
roasting on an open fire…”) and a reworking of the Mills Brothers’ hit,
“Glow Worm/It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”  The second,
Comfort and Joy, is more of the same (by popular demand of their fans), and
includes a rollicking “Jingle Bell Rock.”  Both CDS also include new Christmas songs by Scott Leonard. All of Rockapella’s albums carry the following statement: “This is a contemporary a capella recording; all sounds on these tracks were produced by the voices and appendages of Rockapella.”

For more tradtional Christmas music, you can’t beat English cathedral choirs. Some of the best recordings are the old Musical Heritage Society CDS, if you can get hold of them: A Festival of Lessons and Carols from King’s (King’s College, Cambridge University), is a wondrous version of the traditional Anglican Service of Nine Lessons. Also by the King’s College Choir are Christmas Collection and O Come All Ye Faithful, both with lush and glorious performances of traditional Christmas carols.

 Something a little different, you say? What about Elizabethan Christmas Anthems, by Red Byrd and the Rose Consort of Viols? Then there’s  Christmas Guitar, carols arranged for guitar and played by Stephen Siktberg– great background music for Christmas dinner or opening  presents. (Both also Musical Heritage Society.)  Another good, softly playing CD is The Christmas Harp, featuring Andrea Vigh, Deborah Sipkat and Marion Hofmann. Pieces by Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and  Pescetti  are delicately ethereal on this album.  For livelier, but very  mellow, renderings of Baroque and Classical Christmas music,                there’s Christmas Brass, by the Galliard Brass Ensemble.

Finally, there’s Chant Noel, by the now famous Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, who made church music all the rage in the 1990s. There is something mesmerizing about Gregorian chant, and these chants for the Christmas season are no exception.

From my Christmas notebook

Christmas Stories
One of the best Christmas stories I’ve ever read is No Holly for Miss Quinn, by Miss Read. She wrote two series of novels about English village life, and three novels about life in a small English market town from the turn of the 20th century through the post-WWII period.

I love this book especially for a particular moment during Christmas dinner, when the young boy has a sudden realization about the nature of Father Christmas and in that realization passes from childhood into the world of grown-up secrets.

No Holly for Miss Quinn speaks especially for women who are happily single and enjoy their lives to the full. But it also speaks for the child on the verge of growing up; and for the person who has lonely Christmases; and the person who has too much family at Christmas.

Another Christmas book by Miss Read is The Christmas Mouse, about a young boy who runs away from home on Christmas Eve, and the canny and wise old woman who gets him home for Christmas. Miss Read, whose real name was Dora Saint, wrote beautifully, especially in her descriptions of nature –the changes of seasons, the activities of birds and animals– and the way children interact with the natural world. She also had great insight into the urge to simplify our lives, to leave some of the unnecessary impedimenta behind.
.An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories includes both traditional and modern tales, and the illustrations are evocative and lush. These are stories for grown ups to enjoy and to read with children. Some of the titles will give you an idea: “Burper and the Magic Lamp,” by Robert Leeson. “Ghost Alarm,” by Nicholas Fisk. “The Anarchist’s Pudding,” by Geraldine McCaughrean. Mr. Pickwick’s adventure sliding on the ice is included as well. Several of the stories have sinister or macabre twists, and the Christmas ghost story is a classic form, thanks to Charles Dickens.
 
How about an opening to whet the appetite: “Jeremy James first met Father Christmas one Saturday morning in a big shop. He was a little surprised to see him there, because it was soon going to be Christmas, and Jeremy James thought Santa Claus really ought to be somewhere in the North Pole filling sacks with presents and feeding his reindeer.” — from “Father Christmas and Father Christmas,” by David Henry Wilson.

Stories by Paul Auster, Ann Beattie, Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Annie Dillard, Patricia Highsmith, Jane Smiley and others are included in A Literary Christmas, Great Contemporary Christmas Stories, a collection from the Atlantic Monthly Press. These are stories for avid readers and for those who want to sample the work of some of the most interesting writers of our time. Some entries are excerpts from previous works, and some are topical short stories. A great read for the Christmas season.

For stories in song, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols is very handy. It includes all the verses of fifty Christmas carols as well as the music, and it’s small enough to slip into a handbag on the way to Midnight Mass or Christmas service. The carols are from throughout Europe, some dating as early as the Middle Ages. The book includes a brief history of each carol and an introduction with a short history of Christmas caroling, as well as notes on the carols in performance. Like all Penguin Books, it’s a fantastic bargain.

And don’t forget, there are many editions of A Christmas Carol available, from economy paperbacks to lushly illustrated coffee table versions. The movies are fun, especially the musical, Scrooge, with Albert Finney in the title role; but reading the story with your family or friends is a wonderful way to spend Christmas Eve.

Speaking of the movies, let me put in a vote for the oldie with Alistair Simm as Scrooge. Yes, it’s in black and white. But Simm is such a wonderful Scrooge, and he looks like such a jovial granddad, this is a perfect version for children. The Ghost of Christmas Future is really scary, too, which the kids really like!
 
©2007 RK Silipo. All rights reserved.

Christmas Skies

The word, leaden, to describe the skies, must have been coined by an Englishman. The very definition of the term defines the winter skies in England. It’s a pefect word, too, because it gives not only the colour, a dark, dull grey; it also gives a sense of suppression, a  sense of the  heavy weight on our emotions, here under those skies. When, rarely, the sun breaks through for an hour or so, our elation is dashed by the inevitable return of the leaden skies, often with rain.

This greyness of days is coupled with the long, dark nights that begin to close over us in September, and reach their longest on December 2st. Sunset is earlier and sunrise later each day. Here, it is dark by 3:30 or so, and in a week it will be dark by 3:00.

All of this, for many of us, saps our energy and even deadens enthusiasm for our usual everyday enjoyment of life’s good moments.

No wonder ancient peoples needed to have a festival, a celebration day, in the middle of this season. And no wonder the ancient Christian church picked December 25th, when the days are just starting to get longer again, to be Jesus’s birthday. Who cares when it really was? We need the celebration now; we need to say, yes, the clouds will lift and we will see more light . . . maybe not soon, but eventually.

Christmas–Shakespeare’s Words

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein Our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long.
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.

–Shakespeare

snowscene

The Book of Christmas, by Jane Struthers

Every year, I try to find a new book about Christmas for my collection. This year, I found it at the National Theatre Shop– a surprise, because the shop, for obvious reasons, features theatre related items like scripts, actors’ memoirs and NT tee shirts.

The Book of Christmas is a delight.

xmasbook

Struthers covers everything from the selection of the date for Christmas to the first Nativity scene, Santa/Sinter Klass/Father Christmas in all his many guises, weird and wonderful customs (and some you wouldn’t want to try for anything!) decking the halls, Christmas feasting– and lots of other topics. The chapter on celebrating Christmas during hard times is particularly interesting to me.

I am enjoying it thoroughly.

Christmas in The Society

John L’Heuruex, now emeritus professor of Stanford University and well-known novelist and poet, then a Jesuit seminarian, wrote in his journal, Picnic in Babylon, on Christmas, 1963:

Tom O’Gorman, who says Mass for the workmen here, told me this story. While the priest says the Gospel in Latin, one of the workmen reads it aloud in English to the little congregation. Tom says he distinctly heard the chap say in his Negro velvet voice, “And the wise men brought gifts of gold and mirth and frankenstein.” And no one laughed. Terrific. 

The book is now out of print, and my copy is literally taped together because the binding has long since disintegrated. L’Heureux has a wicked sense of humour. His novels are always both sinister and funny.

Christmas: Facing Christmas

This poem touched me. I have no idea if it’s still in print or in copyright. All I know is that it’s by Grace Noll Crowell and it appeared in a collection in 1940. I really love it.

I shall attend to my little errands of love early this year,

So that the brief days before Christmas may be

 Unhampered and clear

Of the fever of hurry. The breathless rushing

      that I have known in the past

Shall not possess me. I shall be calm in my soul

And ready at last

For Christmas;

I shall have leisure– I shall go out alone

From my roof and my door;

I shall not miss the silver silence of stars

As I have before;

And, oh, perhaps– If I stand there very still,

And very long–

I shall hear what the clamor of living has kept from me;

The Angels’ song!