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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas carols’


This post first appeared two years ago as “My Ten Favourite Christmas Songs”. It had a mixed reception, some accounting it a “great list” whilst others, as is their right, rubbishing certain selections and offering their own alternatives.

I stated at the beginning of the earlier post:

there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching fifty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way.

That statement still rings true, and I have re-released that same list today, with only minor textual amendments.

A word of warning first.

One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the aggravating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere at this time of year – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.

I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of “Fairytale of New York”, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.

I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.

Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?

Perhaps I am.

But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.

10. Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan 

Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like “Do You Hear What I Hear? Winter Wonderland” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.

But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.

So who’s had too much egg nog now?

9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow  Dean Martin

Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.

8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral

Initially, this slot was filled by “In the Bleak Midwinter”, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.

7. Here We Come A-Wassailing Kate Rusby

The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I listen to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.

6. Angels From the Realms of Glory King’s College, Cambridge

And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.

5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Ella Fitzgerald

“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to maintain a similarly central place in my affections.

4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow King’s College Cambridge

The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols might be thought to have bred – far from it, but “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.

A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – “Rocking” and “Away in a Manger” which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).

“See Amid the Winters Snow” has added resonance too in that this was my father and his eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. They would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt, drunken duet.

3. The Holly and the Ivy – Kate Rusby

This should have been “The First Tree in the Greenwood” but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.  

2. Run Run Rudolph Chuck Berry

The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah – Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra

Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.

But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t Messiah” first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!

Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.

I rest my case.

By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the inherited faith, if not the latent spirituality, be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.

And, of course, they evoke that most precious period of our lives – childhood.

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It’s mid-December. A seven year old boy in crew cut and tiny shorts sits cross-legged on the cold wooden floor of the school assembly hall, singing, or rather miming, along to:

Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, do not stir

We will lend a coat of fur

We will rock you, rock you, rock you

We will rock you, rock you, rock you

See the fur to keep you warm

Snugly round your tiny form

Fast forward to 2am on Christmas morning. A short, portly figure creeps into the child’s room, cursing through Watney Red Barrel breath that he really should have delivered on his year old promise to oil the door hinges.

He places the bulging paper sack at the end of the bed, applauding himself for fooling his son once for what might just be the last time, that he is a certain someone else.

Seven hours later, his excitement at receiving the microscope and Beano Annual spent, the child bounds into four inches of new-fallen snow in the back yard. Turning swiftly at the fake Santa’s voice, he is hit full square between the eyes with a gently rolled but deadly fastball. Tears follow as readily as the squeals of delight that had greeted the contents of the sack.

But there is neither time for crying nor testing the capacity of the new chemistry set to blow up the house. The traditional whistle stop tour around the houses of friends and neighbours beckons. The breathalyser, legal drink drive limit and compulsory seat belt legislation have all yet to be introduced, and few drivers think of the potentially dire consequences of having a “drink for Christmas” at every one. It is fortunate, therefore, that Mrs Santa takes the wheel. 

And then the main event. Three tables of varying design, height, width and degree of wobbliness are wedged together, and an equally motley assortment of chairs are looted from every available room to complete the scene. Fifteen places are set for a party that spans three generations.

The grandfather, prior to the ceremonial carving of the turkey, leads the toast to his wife and their four daughters-in-law for the preparation of the feast. Secretly, he prays that there will be enough of the bird leftover to lie with his beloved piccalilli in the sandwiches he will take to work at the Royal Navy dockyard.

Even the normally taciturn budgerigar averts its permanent gaze through net curtains onto the street outside to join in the festivities by trilling along to Ella, Dean and Bing on the radio in the opposite corner.

As the remnants of the Christmas and mincemeat puddings are laid away, the cooks, their work done, turn their attention to Billy Smart’s Circus on the small black and white television.

The men are consigned to the kitchen to discharge their traditional washing up duties and the children squabble over who gets the next ride on the new sledge in the snowy back yard. Postprandial slumbers are the order of the next two hours before, prompted by the junior members of the party, it is time for “tree presents”.

Television plays only a peripheral role in Christmases of this era, losing out by mid evening to a family singalong. The favourite uncle, worse for wear from a cocktail of cheap fizz, Party Seven beer and Bols advocaat, leads the traditional rendition of the Music Man who “comes from down your way”. The children wrestle their weariness as they “pi-a-pi-a-pi-a-no” and “umpa-umpa-umpapa” to their heart’s content, their giggling intensified by the bandleader flicking his loose front tooth up and down with his tongue as they sing. 

Boxing Day is barely two hours old when the ladies ascend the stairs to sleep, but only after they have, after customary mock protests, prepared Irish coffees for their increasingly inebriated husbands. Their departure lends licence to the grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers, sons, male cousins and grandsons to fight for every available inch of floor space in the lounge. A ritual as old as the monarch’s Christmas message or brussel sprouts is about to be played out  – the annual “world farting contest”, the title of champion having been proudly borne for nearly a decade by the child’s youngest and supremely flatulent uncle. 

But as the boy drifts into a long overdue sleep, his only thoughts are of the seasonal event that is second only to opening of that sack nearly twenty four hours earlier – the Boxing Day football match.

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Or it may not be.

For doesn’t the music you prefer to listen to so often reflect the mood that you are in at that moment in time?

And then there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching thirty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely (sorry X Factor) to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way).

So I have tried to avoid these potential pitfalls and focus on those songs and performances that transcend current inclination or mood.

A word of warning first.

One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the excrutiating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties – and are the bane of my life at this time of year. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.

I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of Fairytale of New York, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.

I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.

Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?

Perhaps I am.

But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.

10. Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan 

Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like Do You Hear What I Hear?, Winter Wonderland and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.

But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.

So who’s had too much egg nog now?

9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow –  Dean Martin

Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.

8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral

Initially, this slot was filled by In the Bleak Midwinter, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.

7. Here We Come A-Wassailing – Kate Rusby

The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I turn to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.

6. Angels From the Realms of Glory – King’s College, Cambridge

And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.

5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Ella Fitzgerald

“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to hold a similarly central place in my affections.

4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow – King’s College Cambridge

The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols such as Once in Royal David’s City, Silent Night, While Shepherds Watched, O little Town of Bethlehem, Good King Wenceslas, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Nowell and O Come All Ye Faithful might be thought to have bred – far from it, but these and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.

A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – Rocking and Away in A Manger which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).

See Amid the Winter’s Snow has added resonance too in that this was my father and eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. Fuelled by a cocktail of beer, wine, gin and tonic and Irish coffee (not all at once though), they would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt duet.

3. The Holly and the Ivy  Kate Rusby

This should have been The First Tree in the Greenwood but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.  

2. Run Run Rudolph – Chuck Berry

The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah – Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra

Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.

But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t Messiah first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!

Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.

I rest my case.

By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the faith be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.

So you’ve heard mine. What are your favourites?

Please let me know either by commenting at the end of this post, or replying via Facebook or Twitter.

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It is November 21st and the preparations for Christmas are in full swing. Supermarket special offers vie with insurance companies for predominance in TV commercials.  Small children walking to nursery with their mothers can be heard singing “Jingle Bells” or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” under their breath, though just loud enough to act, they think, as a subtle reminder to Mum.  The cable TV channel Movies 24, renamed Christmas 24 for the duration, is showing festive films throughout the day and night – with a two hour break between 6am and 8am for………….teleshopping! Christmas trees are also beginning to peer from behind curtains.

Much as I enjoy Christmas I have always tried to keep it at arms’ length, at least until the second week in December.  But the date upon which I am sucked into its tentacles has got earlier and earlier. I suppose Halloween now acts as the catalyst for a full scale assault on the holiday season, though the retail world, more desperate than ever to eke every penny out of customers grudgingly trying to resist such attempts, has been playing Christmas carols, Dean Martin, The Pogues and Kirsty McColl, not to mention that infernal Slade song, since mid-October.

So here I am – still a week of November to go and I am already wrapped up in Christmas (unlike the presents I haven’t even started to buy).

Unless we are devout Christians, and I certainly do not claim to be one, I suspect that our perceptions of the occasion vary over our lives.

My childhood Christmas mornings were spent opening the bulging sack of presents that my father, whom, out of loyalty, I had never exposed until now for his obvious mugging and impersonation of Santa, had lain at the bottom of my bed at between 1.30 and 2.00am (how do I know that when I was so obviously asleep at the time?).  At least I had the decency not to disturb my parents before 5am with the revelation of its contents.

After visiting several friends for drinks, we would walk to my paternal grandparents’ house for the traditional Christmas dinner, surrounded by assorted cousins, aunts and uncles, followed by party games, a “good old sing-song” and an elaborate tea comprising such Dickensian delicacies as pork pie and piccalilli.  Once the organisation of such a large event had become too much for them, their children rotated responsibility for accommodating fifteen, sometimes more, celebrants for three nights.  The women and children slept in the beds upstairs and the men sank onto any available floor space downstairs, where the evening’s drinking would be rounded off by the annual world farting championship (which a certain uncle won every year).  Joining the menfolk in this charming ritual became a rite of passage for the boys in the family.

Since leaving University thirty five years ago, the holiday season has, with the exceptions of one New Year in New York and a couple of years where bad weather grounded us, entailed a near six hundred mile round trip between the two events to ensure that both my and my girlfriend’s / wife’s parents were neither offended nor disappointed.  Inevitably, therefore, Christmases and New Years have taken on a familiar and staid pattern.  “Christmas is really for the kids” may be a cliché, but the presence of each succeeding generation of children does enliven the occasion and bring back warm memories of one’s own childhood.

But, in recent years, I have developed a growing affection for Christmas.  For a long time it was an enjoyable if routine experience, which the travelling did little to mollify.  Especially since my disenchantment with football, around which my Christmas diary had revolved, took hold, the lead up to the holiday season has become one long round of social events.

This year alone, I have already booked to see Cinderella, the first pantomime in the new Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and English folk singer, Kate Rusby’s Christmas Concert at the Barbican Centre in London.  Both of these have become essential annual events.  In addition, we are attending the Christmas Evening Special at Hever Castle and Rochester’s annual Dickensian Christmas and linked German style Christmas market.  We may also be part of the congregation at the Rochester Cathedral Carol Service.  Several Christmas meals are also planned, and there will be the inevitable procession of  shopping excursions, including a visit to the new Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, close to the Olympic Stadium.

And then there’s the Christmas CDs which have been stuffed away in my wardrobe for the past eleven months.  They will need a dusting before my favourite songs are reloaded once again on my iPod to enable me to create the playlists that act as the soundtrack to the “big day”.

The DVD collection will also get an airing with assorted versions of A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street being essential viewing.  Purporting to have a literary disposition, it might be expected that I would cite It’s A Wonderful Life as the ultimate Christmas movie, but I’m sorry to disappoint you – Bad Santa and Elf take pride of place in my collection!

Which brings me to a question that preoccupies me a lot these days – whether my shifting interests and attitudes on this subject, or any other for that matter, are, in any respect, attributable to the ageing process or not.  I have no idea what the answer is. My political views, musical tastes and sporting allegiances remain broadly the same as when I was younger, although they have been subject to some fine shading with the passage of time.  I dare say this phenomenon has attracted scientists who will have theories for it.  Perhaps it will, one day, be the subject of another blog post.

The connection to the Christian dimension of Christmas is a particularly interesting one.  Although I was brought up as a Church of England Christian, and was presented with a bible for 100% attendance at Sunday School when I was nine, any faith that my parents might have gently encouraged me to adopt, has long disappeared.  And I have never been one, unlike my father, to bellow out a carol or hymn – in fact I was only selected for the school choir and placed in the front row because I was a champion mimer.  But, long after those days in primary school when I would sit cross-legged singing (my talent for miming had not been discovered yet) Away in a Manger and Rocking, I remain genuinely touched by the music in particular.  It has the same emotional impact upon me as listening to a reading of the 400 year old King James version of the Bible. I am sure that I am far from alone in harbouring such contradictions.  

So I’m looking forward to Christmas – the social and theatrical events, my father round for dinner and, yes, the travelling to the in-laws for New Year.

But I will not be able to suppress an irritated groan when I hear that damned Slade record for the first time.

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