Ushering in the Christmas spirit

A Facebook friend recently posted a discussion starter – what’s your favourite Christmas CD? I was horrified by some of the suggestions – there is little I dislike more than faded pop stars and hip young things giving their melismatic and affected performances of classic Christmas carols. What were my friends thinking? My nomination was for Tijuana Christmas (by Tijuana Brass). We had this LP when we were kids and it was our absolute favourite, guaranteed to get us jiving around the lounge room in our pyjamas and getting giddy. It’s still my absolute favourite. A few years back my sister tracked down a copy of the LP and made a CD of it for me. It only lasts for 38 minutes, so it gets a fairly constant rotation on Christmas Day here.

 

Start playing it now! It’s the best. Dig those vibes! (I mean the vibraphone, rather than groovy feeling, man).

I confess I am a Christmas purist. I like it old-style. Tinsel and pine trees, special tree decorations (added to each year with one or two special finds) and nativity sets. Nothing proves this more than the fact that every year, I host a Christmas carol-singing party. I invite everyone I know (and some people I don’t know but that others have told me about) that likes to sing carols in the old-fashioned, ‘Oxford Book of Carols’ way. We gather together, we bring food to share, and we sing through all the carols. Then we hit the streets and go and sing for the neighbours. Sometimes they give us money, and we give this to a charity.

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(Or as one friend put it on Sunday night, “Walk the streets for money – you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right!”). Yep. Indeed.

“You have your own Christmas tradition,” my sister observed this year. It’s quite a long-running tradition now. It first started when I was still a student at the Victorian College of the Arts (waaaay back in the late 80s/early 90s). A group of friends and I decided to form a small group and market ourselves as carol-singers to shops and department stores in the lead-up to Christmas. We got booked to do a few gigs, made some money and had a lot of fun.

A year or two later, living in London as a post-graduate student, another group of friends and I did the same thing. We got a series of gigs in a chain of upmarket pubs (called ‘The Pitcher and Piano’). The deal usually included food as well as cash – always a welcome offer for cash-strapped students in London. The following year we talked about reforming the group and doing it again, but we never quite got organised with the marketing. Suddenly, it was the 20th December… and time had run out! So we got together anyway, and just sang the carols for the fun of it.

I think the carol-singing party tradition started there. Back in Australia, I invited friends around to sing, usually on the last weekend before Christmas, and it always happened that only those that wanted to sing came along. Everyone else stayed away. It meant that I didn’t have to worry about it being a boring or daggy event for people – everyone who was coming along was a bit of a purist like me, it seemed, and a lover of carols sung the old-school, four-part harmony way. No melismatic or faddish soulful renderings to be heard at all.

Carol singing, Dec 13 (Gillian Howell)

The party was usually held wherever I was living at the time. I remember one party in the back yard of a share house in Parkville, where we cooked up a big barbecue and tried to accompany ourselves on my new piano accordion (I couldn’t play it then, and can’t really play it now). Another year, we had it in my top-floor flat in North Melbourne. Somehow I managed to persuade a percussionist friend to bring his vibraphone to accompany the singing. He lugged it up four flights of stairs. He has never come to another carols party. I think I might have used up all of his good will on that night.

More recently, the party has been held in the home of my good friends Simon and Victoria, who are carol-singing regulars. They have a beautiful home with lots of room for people, song-sheets and large platters of food. They have hosted the event for the last few years. I even have a name for the event now – ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’. For some of the regulars, it is one of the only times we see each other each year. Traditions that belong to the carol-singing party have evolved, such as the deliberate mis-singing of Verse 4 of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (“Thus spake the Seraph and forthwith appeared a Shining Thong”). Hehehe. I always giggle.

Carol singing, Dec 13 (Gillian Howell)

Other songs always choke me up. I can’t get through Oh Little Town of Bethlehem without getting a big lump in my throat – awkward when you are the only person on the alto line. It’s the carol I loved best when I was a child. I remember getting a song book from a carols night at Ringwood Lake and being thrilled to be able to learn all the words to this carol off by heart. I practised it until I knew it. It was rarely sung at the carol services we had at church, so I had to sing it on my own at home, to get it out of my system.

These days, Christmas brings more pressure and madness than ever before. We are busier. There are more people to see, more friends and family to connect with. It’s hard to get a sense of Christmas spirit – that feeling that reminds us why we do all these busy things, because in fact these are people we love and care about – when everything feels so rushed.

The Christmas carols party is proving to be a way for many of us to usher in our own sense of Christmas spirit. The songs that get played in the supermarkets and department stores don’t do it for  us. Singing the songs ourselves, in the glorious, beautiful harmonies that we first learned years ago (and in some cases are still getting right), is what will get the eyes shining and the mouths smiling, and the goodwill and good cheer flowing. Traditions are important. They keep us grounded and connected. I’m happy to find that without ever really planning it to be so, I’ve created a Christmas tradition of my own that is important to many people other than myself.

 

 

 

 

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2 comments so far

  1. Jennifer on

    Oh, I remember singing carols. My mum worked at the Royal Women’s Hospital. There was a group of staff and hangers on who sang on Christmas Day. For a few years that’s what my family did, Mum, Dad and 4 kids, plus some good singy friends. We would start at about 9 am at the top of the hospital, and sing in every ward and wherever else there were people working. We kids and friends would sing in parts, and had the lovely experience of singing softly to babies maybe 2 hours old. We would finish up in the bowels of the hospital then go home. Some had Christmas dinners to go to. We deferred our family dinner to Boxing Day, on account of the carols.
    With time we moved to singing at my Dad’s hospital, then various hospitals I worked at as a junior doctor. Eventually we sang just a quickly rehearsed carol at home. The year my dad died we didn’t sing. He died a few days after Christmas, and his memorial service was a couple of weeks later. We knew we would sing but had to decide what. We might have seemed quite disrespectful as we threw suggestions around and fell about laughing, but of course Dad himself couldn’t have helped laughing. In the end at the church we sang Quem Pastores, with straight faces. I was struck by how many people cried.
    My family is scattered, physically and emotionally. Thank you for bringing up these memories. I hope one day we will sing together again, with love.

    • Gillian Howell on

      Jen, thanks so much for sharing these memories. What a beautiful tradition, to sing in the hospital as a family. Maybe a I can morph my annual carols night into something connected with that kind of sharing.
      We always sang in my family too (although not so well that we’d ever team up to sing for other people. We were much more approximate :-)). I was asking mum the other day about how it was that we knew lots of the carols. “Oh, we used to sing them in the car,” she said. We had all sorts of songs we sang in the car actually – so the carols must have started up at a seasonally-appropriate time. I wonder how children today will learn the carols now – especially as lots of primary schools won’t/can’t sing any overtly Christian songs at end-of-year concerts now! Even with my carols party, it is only the friends who sang in choirs when they were at school, or friends who are English, that like the idea of singing carols. The others don’t really have any emotional connection to the songs. And they don’t really know the melodies.
      Times change. But I don’t like to lose some of the traditions. I hope you do get to sing together with your family again one day. Happy Christmas and New Year to you. Thanks for contributing to my blog this year!


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