It’s Christmas Day so I’m posting this early and directing you to whatever device you listen to when playing a Spotify playlist.
If you do not have an account for this music streaming app, it is free to join up.
I have curated this in the true Christian spirit of peace and goodwill to all people (and dogs), with the inclusion of a few modern songs which have become known for their festive topicality.
I had the idea to do this while seated in the front row of St Mark’s cathedral in Warwick, as our choir waited to perform..“Ah, hard pews,’ I groaned to my fellow tenor as we rose to sing, “That takes me back.”
“What’s your background then?” he replied and I only had time to say “Methodist” before we queued up in the vestry for our first number, Ring Christmas Bells.
I have sat on many a hard church pew for many an hour. Our parents believed we should all attend ‘kirk’ as a family every week. Mum played the church organ, so it was a given that we’d end up knowing all the words of all the songs.
The traditional Christmas ones stay with you, even if in later years if you are one of those who once did and now no longer do.
I don’t mind listening to or singing Christmas music, but I detest being force-fed through the speakers in shopping malls and other public places.
Typically, whoever chooses the playlists for these locations goes with the hackneyed, inappropriate Northern hemisphere ones, or songs that embellish the commercial Christmas myth of Santa as we are all streamed into stores to buy gifts that in truth we rarely want or need.
I will put The Grinch back in his box now and proceed to the playlist, which you can listen to while sweating over a Christmas stove, peeling prawns or sitting with your feet up having a coldie.
1/ I’d never heard The First Noel sung to the tune of Pachelbel’s Canon. Our choir, East Street Singers, obviously knew it, and after two weeks’ rehearsal, so did I. If you’ve never heard it before, there is a 12-bar instrumental before the singing begins. The First Noel is a Cornish song from the early 1800s, lyrics inspired by Luke, Chapter 2.
2/ Ring Christmas Bells, sung by Dublin’s gay and lesbian choir. They sing it a good deal faster than we did, as we slow-marched into the cathedral, carrying candles.
3/ Next up is Mary Did You Know? by Mark Lowry and Buddy Green. We sing the arrangement by Fred Bock, unlike acapella group Pentatonix, who usually make up their own.
4/ Then come The Civil Wars with a sensitive rendition of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Sadly, this duo broke up after recording two sublime albums of originals.
5/ Let’s jump into some contemporary songs of the Christmas season and the emotions it stirs up. The late John Lennon, killed outside his home in New York on December 8, 1980, starts Happy Xmas/War is Over with: ‘And so it is Christmas and what have we done?’ He rolls the traditional song into a refrain: ‘War is over, if you want it’, sung by 35 children of the Harlem Community Choir (who would all be between 50 and 60 years old today).
6/ I’ve previously included Joni Mitchell’s plaintive River in Christmas playlists. Feeling sad at a supposedly happy time, she wishes she had a river to skate away on, introducing and closing the song with Jingle Bells in a minor key.
7/ Following on from that is Paul Kelly’s recipe for gravy, instructions dictated to his brother while he (the writer) languishes in jail.
8/ Macca, host of Australia all Over, prompted me to include the Beach Boys’ ‘Little Saint Nick’ when he aired its cheerful harmonies and danceable tune last Sunday.
9/ I remember being introduced to the songs of Taylor Swift by a couple of young teenage girls who sang one after the other at a karaoke night. This is Swift’s ‘Christmas Must be Something More’ with lyrics worth a second listen.
10/ Switching back to carols, here’s an Australian one (The Silver Stars) intepreted by the stellar vocal group, Ideas of North.
11-13/ Did I warn you this was an eclectic list? Now we have Harry Belafonte with Mary’s Boy Child, followed by Paul Robeson (Ode to Joy – including a verse in German), and Wassail Song, performed by the Choir of Magdalene College. 14/ Closing out the celestial segment, Enya sings the timeless carol Silent Night in Gaelic.
15/ Changing the mood, Norah Jones sings pleadingly ‘It’s Not Christmas until you Come Home’. 16/ KT Tunstall pursues the theme with ‘Lonely This Christmas’.
17/ For the Parrotheads out there, Jimmy Buffett brings a little laconic escapism (and steel drums) in ‘Christmas Island’. No doubt in my mind Jimmy was not referencing our own Pacific gulag, where we lock up refugees and bill the tax payer.
18/ Canadian songwriter Dar Williams intended her 1996 song,The Christians and the Pagans, as a ‘humorous respite from tortured holiday gatherings’. The theme was controversial in its day, a Solstice-celebrating lesbian couple joining their devout family for Christmas.
“The food was great, the tree plugged in, the meal had gone without a hitch, Till Timmy turned to Amber and said, ‘Is it true that you’re a witch?’ ”
As Slate reviewer Karen Tucker observes, although Williams said it was intended as witty social comment, the song nevertheless “evokes rumination on fractured families and societal ills in listeners, some of whom drill deeply into the psychology of the lyric”.
19/ The penultimate song is also an Australian carol, ‘Carol of the Birds’, sometimes called Orana, sung here by the Sir Peter Chanel Choir.
20/ And to take us out, Coldplay’s Christmas Lights is a reminder to cut the guide out of the free newspaper and go for a drive this evening.
She Who Bought Solar Christmas Lights From The Big Green Shed And Strung Them Along The Fence is joining in this enterprise, in a small way.One has to make a gesture in this town, where there are some truly splendid, even lavish displays.
The best way to appreciate this playlist is to play it in the car while taking the (grand) kids around to see the neighbourhood Christmas lights.
Later, when the kids have gone to bed and the dog is gnawing his Yuletide bone, check out East Street Singers performing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. https://www.facebook.com/eaststreetsingers/posts/3787100911353311
All the best for Christmas and see you in 2021
Bob and SWBSCLFTBGSASTATF (aka Laurel)