My earliest memories of Christmas are of being at my grandmother house in the UK. I remember sitting in what felt like a large, cold room. A sheepskin rug laid over the carpet and close to where two radiators met marked my territory. Here I would spend much of the day reading, drawing or constructing model aeroplane kits. An old clock would tick away the silence, counting down time in-between those arranged activities my father had prepared for me.
This was my father’s memory of Christmas. And he thought my memories of the holidays should be so formed.
I was not unhappy. These were the holidays after all. But neither did I feel at home. Home was many miles away, in a place defined not by silence but by sound. It was cool rather than cold, the air less dry to the touch, and light rose in a pale gold rather than the dim greys allowed by low, heavy cloud cover.
Then, as an only child, and the only child for miles around, I would comprehend my new surroundings through song. As I sung the cold and silence became beautiful, and my loneliness spiritual. Choral music, which I had learned at school, seemed to lift me.
Unlike the more popular music I hummed along to at school for much of the year, choral music seemed made for these holy days. It is a music that celebrates a deeper contemplation. It appeals to our inherent sense of being good, and as a young child it presented a world coloured not by the reality of the day-to-day but of something greater that could be found deep within ourselves. It helped me recognise and embrace the inherent goodness of my character, and convinced me that, above all else, this is all that really mattered.
Saint Augustin is meant to have said, “those who sing, pray twice”. The godless thoughts already stirring in my young mind lead me to read this in reverse. Perhaps those who pray sing poorly, I thought. As through my voice, and not through prayer, I felt I could touch something higher, or something deeper within myself. Wisdom was revealed not in the sermon but in the music.
I did not know who King Wenceslas was, but nevertheless I sang. I could not dance (and still do not), and yet I sung with joy of a dancing day. For my heart danced among the clouds.
I did know the Three Kings, the bible stories being a mandatory read. But in song the stories meant nothing. I found beauty and grace in the poetry of the line, the chord and the rhythm than in any character. Suo Gan, that most beautiful Welsh lullaby, was and is still incomprehensible to me in word, but it is so powerfully touching in its shape and sound. Through such music life is transcended.
And this very human transcendence is what I celebrate at Christmas. It is for me the most relevant and beautiful message of Christ’s Mass – not the reaffirmation of a faith but a more universal and human reconnection with that which is most important to us. It is a time when the pretence of only living may be dropped; a time, when nature is at her least productive, for self-reflection, and a celebration of our capacity to experience beauty, feel grace and to love. Christmas, like choral music, is a celebration of the divine within us.
Popular music tracks may have gained more sway with increasing commercialisation. Christmas sales and the lights that advertise them have become ever more sophisticated if not more tasteful. But have they been able to capture people in the same way as that combination of light and sound that first enraptured us centuries ago? Do the catchy tunes and easy melodies of All I Want For Christmas is You, put to video by the latest star prepared to mimic a teenage pout, engaged us in the holiday spirit in the way the ethereal music of Thomas Tallis might? The great churches, like other spiritual buildings and place, resonate not to the God without but the God within, and the universal beauty that we all see via light and sound. These are temples to our senses.
When I was 9 my sister was born. Two years later I had a brother, and my Christmas was increasingly a Hong Kong affair. Place and family may have changed, and time may have passed, but the importance of my Christmas did not. As I loved more people in more ways I discovered a fuller and more satisfying spirit in the holidays. The festive trapping, from trees to turkeys to the aroma of nutmeg, continued to serve the same purpose: to welcome home those we love. It is never a party, but a celebration of a much deeper bond. It is this bond that choral music continues to speak most directly too.
In its complex polyphony, in the offsetting, interweaving and overlaying of voices, and in words sung with an innocence of intent and purity of sound, choral music allows us not so much as connect with the divine as with whatever divine may mean to us. Great Christmas music is defined neither by a period, style of age, but by this inner resonance. They are a celebration of a love that really defines our being. We may hear the great cathedrals of Europe in the music of Palestrina, the chapels of England in the medieval Coventry and Sussex Carols, or the more modern flourishes in music of John Rutter, but all are works that allow us to transcend from the everyday. Such music speaks to us about a universal condition in its universal language. It is a celebration of that which is beautiful, of our desire to be the love we all feel in our hearts. This, to me, is what we really celebrate at Christmas.
(Photo:By Qwerty9999 via Wikimedia Commons)