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A Christmas Carol: the Christmas concert

It’s the end of term here today. Time for a Christmas sing-song.

To be honest, it’s the first time we’ve graduated to attending a concert, rather than a nativity. It feels appropriate to mark it somehow.

I keep writing about A Formal Feeling as one of my Christmas reads. One of the elements
I like about it is the description of rehearsals for the carol concert – some that work, some that don’t, where the sound is off and everyone is feeling chilly.

I found myself thinking back to Christmas concerts of my own, as well as today’s one
I attended. They hold the potential to move us forward into Christmas – if we want to.

It’s one thing to nudge elbows alongside shoppers on the streets or in the supermarkets.
Or to practise our best Christmas smiles as we count down the people we won’t see for a couple of weeks: school teachers, sports instructors.

I’ve written earlier about how Christmas can pull us in so many different directions – and take so many forms. But when we stand and sing the same words – or even share that hour where others sing them to us – we share an experience, side by side.

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Christmas Past

It began with the class visit to the old people’s home. I was all of five or six. We lived in a small village at the time. My granny was still in her own home, but had friends in the old people’s home.

There were the lights, the tree. There was the intent focus on our singing, be it ever so thin and (probably not very) tuneful. There was the generous applause.

It was probably our first experience of volunteering in some way. I remember a certain puzzlement on my part: we had turned up and sang, just as we had at school, but the response was far greater.

Having seen things from the other side, visiting my other granny in a similar home in recent years, I recognise now the impact of children coming in to visit.

However the residents are feeling about themselves, their health, their neighbours across the lunch table – all of this is lifted by the spontaneity of children.

Children come and bring songs, but really they bring themselves, their vitality, their lack of pretence. No wonder there is applause, warm congratulation.

Later, there were concerts at secondary school. The year the choir was tasked with trying an oratorio for the first time.

We did our best to keep up with the rhythms of Vivaldi’s Gloria, and later we tackled Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols.

The thing that interests me about Christmas concerts is that they seem right, whatever note the music takes. It can be the sparseness of medieval sounds, the richness of regular carols.

It can be the intrigue of carols in other languages, or even be the fun and bounce of particularly upbeat songs.

We may be singing about the dark, the difficulties of the world – or the warmth when we come inside. The diversity of the world to which we wish peace; the gladness we can experience in feasting.

Any or (if possible) all of these are quick to speak to our hearts. We feel them, as performers. We understand them, as listeners.

And best of all, we join together in singing, choir and audience, all of us appreciating the contrasts and confusions of Christmas.

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Christmas Present

Today we had a mini version of lessons and carols at school. Readings, carefully practised by each class, learned off by heart and carried off with confidence.

There were violins. A gentle reenactment of the Christmas story. Vocal solos. Songs that encompassed not just English, but also Spanish, French, Polish and even (for one verse) Latin.

There were also the anticipated elements of a school Christmas production. A key headdress that didn’t quite stay in place. The singing that was not always entirely in tune.

But with these came a genuine enjoyment from the performers – and a chance for the audience to join in, bit by bit.

I may not have retained all the actions for The Twelve Days of Christmas, but I am impressed by all the staff who did – and who performed them with no embarrassment.

I was reminded again of the straight-forwardness of children singing, the volume increases that show when they are enjoying it:

‘FOUR calling birds, three French hens…’ The wonderful downhill chase towards the partridge and its pear tree.

These moments of connection over Christmastime may be brief. They may require considerable effort to bring off.

But even an hour of goodwill among men (and women and children) is noticed. We shared a space today in the school hall: parents, teachers, children.

We gave our attention, and our feelings, wintry with the heavy snow of pre-Christmas responsibilities, began to thaw and warm again.

A Christmas Carol: Christmas music

Sooner or later, you see, it draws you in. You may fight it – you may even choose to write about it, and take three different attempts to express it.

Sooner or later, the Christmas music goes on. You find yourself hovering over the iPod, the CD rack, whatever your musical set-up. All of a sudden, there is a need to listen to Christmas music. Over here, it hit today.

Back from the school run, not even the hint of a carol from Junior Reader, or me humming one, but I could tell the time had come to put on the music, and agree that Christmas is in fact on its way.

The trouble has been that the key Christmas music I want to tell you about is in the cheese category. Some music is cheesy, some is cheesy and then rehabilitated (think of the success of Ultralounge albums).

And some albums could pretty much open up their own delicatessen round the corner from you. The cheese factor is that high.

The thing I’ve realised is that it doesn’t really matter. Dan was out for the day on Saturday, allowing me to indulge my fromagerie side. By Sunday, he’d put his ‘this means Christmas’ album on.

His album: I like some of. There’s other bits where it really doesn’t do it for me. But that’s OK. Different people – different childhood experiences. And that seems to be the key to the thing: ‘the Christmas music’ is often set when you are young.

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Christmas Past

It was snowy. I was almost two. We were on our way to Germany for Christmas, at the time when my grandparents were there. I suspect The Music first presented itself on that trip, and my father got a copy of it later.

The Music, you see, is James Last – he of the sweeping strings. Think significant easy listening, with a frisson of panpipes from time to time.

But at whatever point in making his many albums, he did a Christmas one – and that is where The Music comes from. He is German, after all, so it’s kind of fair (I looked it up).

The point of The Music was that it went on at home when we were putting up the Christmas tree. It was in many ways the parental acknowledgement that Christmas was here, that all was well in the world.

These days, I tend to get all emotional when I hear it. Somehow, it conveys incredible safety, peacefulness, all those ‘slowing down and stopping’ feelings that we hope to experience over Christmastime.

I indulged myself in a bit of a re-run, with the help of YouTube. If you want to follow along, here’s where to look – and here’s the person who decided to put all the tracks up on YouTube.

What stood out for me more, this time, was that all the tracks are German. Yes, there’s Silent Night too, but much of what I was falling in love with was things like Bach’s Von Himmel Hoch, or classic German Christmas carols like Suesser die Glocken nie klingen.

For some reason, my later language study didn’t really include German Christmas music.
But I had been pointed in the right direction, at least.

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Christmas Present

What makes Christmas music that is ‘ours’ changes over time. It expands, as we encounter different people, different music in various situations.

Christmas music in our home has many flavours. There are classical, like the Hely-Hutchinson Carol Symphony (those of my generation will find the music for The Box of Delights hidden within the whole).

There’s the sparse but beautiful A Ceremony of Carols, by Benjamin Britten – our school choir’s first real go at an oratorio.

There’s gospel, particularly Take 6’s He is Christmas. Or Dan’s favourite, the gospel-infused Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.

Again, if you’re of a certain generation, Christmas one year was not just about The Box of Delights TV series, but also about Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?

At a time when I actually knew what was in the charts, there were plenty of groups doing their pitch at a Christmas No. 1 – and I really won’t mention them all.

There is also the socially acceptable Christmas cheesy music, whether it’s yet another version of Let it Snow, or Santa Baby (but stick to Eartha Kitt’s version, please).

And of course there are actual carols, even. I’m a fan of the ones that are on the atmospheric side, with The Coventry Carol probably as all-round winner for sheer spine-tinglingness.

Now that I’m underway with the Christmas listening, so to speak, I’m sure I’ll find time to slip in a few more. Like Christmas chocolate, or bulk satsuma consumption, there is always space for another piece of Christmas music.

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Christmas Future

Who knows what else will join the canon of Christmas music in the future?

Junior Reader can be relied on to belt out ‘Three Kings are Riding’, a version that belongs to a school nativity of two years back. I kind of hope that will keep going for some time – even if I am less fond of its return in August.

Christmas traditions of others show you that there are many ways to consider, and celebrate, Christmas. So hang out with more people. Add in some Christmas carols in other languages, if you can.

For some people, Christmas isn’t Christmas without tuning in to Carols from King’s, the annual broadcast of nine lessons and carols from King’s College in Cambridge. While also peeling the sprouts, I believe.

(I have already alluded to my thoughts about sprouts, but I like a little bit of Christmas Eve tradition.)

Christmas music covers all the guises of Christmas, it seems. Whether you want to make merry or kick back, shout for joy or stand in awe and wonder – it’s all there.

What you couldn’t stand to hear in shops in October, what you stop your child singing at the beach in June – turn the corner into the cold and the dark, and suddenly the music is there again.

It doesn’t really matter what it is. As long as it’s yours. And even if it’s cheesy, at least Christmas allows you to provide crackers too.

Eat up.

A Christmas Carol: buying presents

When it comes to Christmas present buying, I seem to have lost my mojo. It wasn’t always so.

I don’t want to adopt the Scrooge approach. I read a bit today about Saint Nicholas, and his frequent and anonymous gift giving. That seemed like a good thing.

At the same time, I seem to have reached a point in life where presents seem less important. I am lucky to have the things I need, and more.

As relatives grow older (clearly I do too), it can become harder to work out what to buy for them, when they too have what they need – some may already be giving away possessions.

And yet. There is something special about receiving a present – and something equally special about planning the right item for the right person.

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Christmas Past

Once upon a time, there was a little girl, who was excited about presents, but not so clear on the notion of keeping secrets. So one year, pre-Christmas, she rushed up to her daddy and said, “We’ve got your Christmas present! We got you SOCKS!”

I have moved on a little since then. (And my father has been known to receive more than socks.)

In my teens, I would think carefully about what to buy – for varied school friends, as well as family. I would even do a special day trip to look for more unusual presents than I might find in our fairly small town.

Once I was old enough to travel a bit further, independently, that was an even better source of presents. Painted wooden candlesticks, bowls and so on from Poland.

Linens from one place – honey from many more. (My mum likes honey, and likes trying different kinds.)

It was fun to go looking, trying to find items typical of a particular place – or things that were just beautiful, and right for someone I had in mind.

It didn’t always go right, of course. The item that I loved might not be so appreciated by a relative who already knew what kind of calendar she liked, and didn’t want a fancy Italian one. Even if it was on beautiful paper.

But mostly, there was joy on both sides. Certainly on mine, as the giver.

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Christmas Present

These days, going across town can constitute a work trip. Going abroad takes lots of planning – and more effort than I remember in the past.

So I am left with my imagination, a few ideas from the Internet at times, and whatever I might come across when doing regular food shops. (This is fine, convenient too, but it’s not always a place of  great gift inspiration.)

What has also changed is my realisation of just how easily gifts can be bought, added to, stockpiled. And all of a sudden, that item that you thought long and hard over, hoped would be treasured, is now just one in a collection of many.

What’s left is a desire not to buy things people don’t want. Which tends to mean I mostly buy tokens, give cash, or (with some relatives) make donations on their behalf.

There’s a small counterbalance to this. It’s less fun to open an envelope than a present, so in some cases I do both: the money for them to choose, and something small to open there and then.

Back in the spring, when I did my eco series, there was one post I had meant to write, and never got round to. The notion was: buy items that can be recycled.

I don’t mean that the person takes them straight off to the charity shop – or into a recycling bin. That would suggest that you had seriously got it wrong.

But items that are made of natural materials; that can be used up (food, of course); that can have a further life with another family, or in a charity shop, if and when you choose to part with them.

Books. Food. CDs, maybe. Games that can be passed on to others in turn.

(If I’m honest, I would just buy books for everyone on my presents list, all the time. I can get excited about that.

But I appreciate that it’s not everyone’s idea of a present – and sometimes even the avid book collector may question the need for another book.)

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Christmas Future

What about you? Are you still a keen present buyer – or recipient? Has it all paled a bit?
Do you look to the kids’ generation to be excited about present giving again?

St Nicholas gave to those who needed it – used up his inheritance that way, in fact. The Christmas story tells us of a priceless gift, one longed for by some, overlooked by others.

I want to come back to something of that sense of value and honouring in the gifts that I give. I don’t know exactly how, in a time and location that seems more about excess than value.

But I’m thinking about it. And as we’re told, it’s the thought that counts.

10 Oct: I often forget…

…that I’ve already told you a story. Or a joke. Or an anecdote. So. Sorry about that.

But have you heard the one about picking brambles? Raking leaves? Buying more food than you need and struggling to fit it into the kitchen?

Oh. You have. I know, because I seem to have written about each of these things at least once.

I come from a family where, if the joke is good, it’s worth a repeat. It is one where a repeat phrase is an opening gambit, a provocation to complete the next part.

Rather a number of these are Goon Show quotations, and since I have come to realise that not everyone goes around saying these (Dan is a case in point here, though he’s learning),
I won’t inundate you with them.

It has taken time and distance from growing up to realise that all these phrases, and their repetitions, are a way of building a shared language. A hoard to break out when you need them. And a way, too, of showing love.

Blogging is often about sharing what we love – as well as what has worked for us, for our child, and so on. And I share some of these things in that same way – like wood smoke, these are things I love. I won’t presume that you’ll love them too, but I think you might.

And sometimes, these things I love come to the surface again – I write again – and then the repetition comes in.

Repeating yourself is seen as a sign of ageing. And, yes, it does come more with age. But it doesn’t just have to be a memory thing. It can be a ‘old, but new in the moment’ thing too. Especially where it’s seasonal.

Were we to forbid mentioning things more than once, or allow only one mention per person, a great number of pumpkins would take offence this month because their qualities and virtues are not being celebrated.

I say this, slightly tongue in cheek, because many of the blogs I follow are full of fall-this and pumpkin-that. And no one seems too concerned that they might have mentioned pumpkins before.

So, forgive me if you have had enough of me repeating myself. I am happy to be in a world where there are good things – and that, often, good things stay good on a second airing.

And you can always hover over those links to see if I am genuinely repeating myself, or sending you off in the direction of something new.

A little of both is a good mixture. So, off you go now, and try out some Goon Show scripts. Better still, listen to some. And if you feel like repeating some in the comments, that too would be welcome.

R is for rustling

Not that kind of rustling, pardner. The sound. It’s the wind in the trees and the leaves under my feet.

It’s the sound of autumn. The rushing in the leaves and branches as the not-yet-gales try out the trees for size. The snap and crunch of leaves around the benches at school where I wait for the doors to open.

I walk to school, turning the last corner, and am greeted by the stance of trees along the side of the road. The wind is there before me. Sometimes I think it hurries me, at other times,
it welcomes me.

And while I may miss things around me in that head-down-walk-fast speed, at times, I don’t miss the wind. It lifts my head from the pavement view.  That’s good.

It’s not really properly autumn yet. Many of the trees are yet to change their colours. The wind is nipping at me, but I am resisting the point where I zip the extra lining into my coat, so it can’t quite be autumn yet.

The wind disagrees. It is already chasing leaves around the playground, already catching them up and dropping them, like a child with a toy, on repeat.

But I like this. For the times when I think that we’re just in the same cycle, school-homework-cook tea-bedtime, the rustling reminds me that the year is moving, that there is change, even if I only see it in the first hillocks of leaves around the bottom of the benches.

Wherever I am in my thoughts by the time I reach the school gate, the wind is niggling at me, reminding me of seasons and movement and right here right now.

Right here right now, I am just happy to take in the sounds. The wind in the trees and the leaves under my feet.