Carolling merrily

The college chapel choir I used to sing in, doing the Christmas thing
It's that time of year when you can't go into a shop without being pounded with Christmas music, and if you are in a choir you will no doubt be polishing up the Christmas favourites.

I have heard people moan about Christmas music - and, yes, the shops overdo it - but I have to confess I love it for a few weeks. I shouldn't, being a picky person, because the weird thing is we don't tend to listen to Christmas music at Christmas. Technically speaking it's Advent at the moment and Christmas starts on December 25, lasting for the traditional 12 days. But in reality, Boxing Day (26 December for those of a non-British persuasion) feels about the last day you want to hear Christmas music. I've certainly had enough by then.

Christmas music divides into three chunks, and my favourite is the least well-known. Firstly we've 'Christmas songs'. The ones you mostly hear in the shops. Everything from 'Let it Snow' to 'Jingle Bells' via 'Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer' for the oldies (did you know the reindeer were only added to the mythos as a result of Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 classic poem 'A Visit from St Nicholas', better known as 'The Night Before Christmas'?) and all those Christmas 'greats' the pop world has foisted on us from 'I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day' (no, you don't, it would be very boring) to 'Stop the Cavalry' (what?) many of which are ridiculous, though I do confess to a special affection for 'Fairytale of New York.'

Second up are traditional Christmas carols. They broadly split between the really traditional ones - a surprising number of which (Including 'In Dulci Jubilo', 'Unto Us is Born a Son', the tune of 'Good King Wenceslas' and the surprise Steeleye Span hit, 'Gaudete!') come from the 1582 Finnish collection Piae Cantiones - and the Victorian standards like 'Once in Royal' and 'Hark the Herald'.

But the type of Christmas music that really hits me in the gut is the modern carols written for choirs to sing. Some of these are miniature musical masterpieces. Some are well know like the 'Carol of the Bells' used in Home Alone, others relatively obscure but beloved by the choirs who find them rewarding hard work: they can be truly gorgeous. Here's a few of my favourites in no particular order that I'd recommend having a listen to:

  • Bethlehem Down - Peter Warlock (see my earlier post on how this was written to buy beer)
  • Remember O Thou Man - Arthur Oldham
  • Adam Lay Y Bounden - Boris Ord
  • A Spotless Rose - Herbert Howells
  • The Oxen - Jonathon Rathbone (ok, probably technically a song rather than a carol, but a cracking setting of the Hardy poem)
The Oldham piece, which is my favourite, isn't on YouTube (though it is available on Spotify here), but below is 'The Oxen' - 2 minutes of sheer gorgeousness. Take a moment from your busy day and have a wallow. And if you fancy doing a bit of your own carolling, you can get excellent accompaniments for many popular carols here.