They arrived at the top on my steep drive and rang my doorbell, two slightly bedraggled but unbowed urchins of about 11. Pausing a moment to consider the risk of it being an axe murderer or some such seasonal criminal, I opened the door, their cue for the inevitable rendition of We wish you a merry Christmas. Why is it always that song? And the words are always wrong! Why can’t people learn the proper words to things? One chorus over, they reached out their little hands for payment which I withheld.
“Do you know any carols?”
“Oh yeah, OK.” Whereupon followed a rendition of the chorus of Sanna Claws is comin’ to town.
I sighed and, defeated, handed over a pound each. Well, they were enterprising young souls and it was dark. And they were the first “carol singers” we’d had for years. They took their leave after my suggestion that they might do a little better if they extended their repertoire to include an actual Christmas carol or two.
Immigrants from India, my parents didn’t do Christmas until I started asking why we couldn’t have a Christmas tree, and then they threw themselves into it with gusto. We always had a chicken and I had Tizer, later replaced with a glass of cider. Marathi friends made the annual journey to our house and, after the Queen, we all did Scottish dancing to their Jimmy Shand and his Band records. Our sitting room was tiny. I have no idea how we fitted in some 14 saris-clad dancers. Carols were something only sung at school. So my first Christmas carol was the Rocking Carol. Do you remember that? It’s the one that babies learn because of its simple tune and sincere, repetitive chorus. And, a little later, Away in a Manger, of course. Is there anyone of my generation who isn’t instantly taken back to infant school nativity plays when they hear that?
I have never had any religious belief but I’ve always enjoyed a sing. Some of the most wonderful traditional music is inspired by devotion to God, and I think the best messages of love and pieces are universal. And I like a good sing. I’ve only really been part of group of carollers once though. I spent the second year of my university course in Beijing, which at that time was developed only by centuries of Chinese history and the utilitarian architecture of the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing in 1984 was very different from how it looks now. In those days most people still wore the green or grey cotton Mao suits that were mass produced by Chinese work units, with the huge blue padded Dayi coat during the bitter northern winter. The first neon sign was introduced to China during my year there, as I recall, and westerners were still regarded as the object of huge curiosity by the local people.
I have no idea how I found out out about it, but I joined a group of international student carol singers to rehearse at the US Embassy every week. In the week before Christmas, we gave carolling performances at some of the luxury hotels that had started to spring up and at some of the foreign embassies. On Christmas Eve 1984 we sang Silent Night in German by the candlelit Christmas tree at the Swiss Ambassador’s residence. It is one of the landmark memories of my life. That same evening we gave a concert at the Jianguo Hotel (Is it still there?) and they repaid us with a wonderful Christmas meal. The next morning we attended Christmas morning service at the British church in Beijing, sherry at the home of a British diplomatic family and skating on the frozen lake at Beijing University.
Fast forward a few years. Carol services had become a big part of my life as a mum of two. There were the school services where our own “Gang of Four” sent their special envoy as advance scout to save the best seats in the front pew for when they deigned to appear just before the start of the service. I rushed from a car accident just in time to see my ten year old Boywonder, who had a phenomenal treble voice, sing the first verse solo of Once in Royal David’s City at his school in Paris and then, the following year, I almost burst with silent pride as he, fresh from his first Wednesday detention, sang the huge opening solo absolutely perfectly in his new Secondary school’s carol concert. His voice broke six months later.
Then there were the real carol services with my choir. I loved those concerts and they were to become the only concert in the annual cycle to which I actually looked forward. We sang all sorts of carols, including all the traditional ones, but In the Bleak Midwinter to the Harold Darke setting has become my favourite. I hope this link works. Christina Rosetti’s simple, evocative words reflect her sadness and I although I adore singing the carol, I can barely get through it without tears streaming down my cheeks. This year I have moved to a different choir and we shared our carolling with the band. It’s not been quite enough, and I look forward to singing carols around the piano on Christmas Day. Luckily everyone in my family shares my passion for singing together. I really believe it is good for the soul.
Do you have any carolling memories? What is your favourite Christmas carol?