Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Carols From Kings

"When the band finished playing, they howled out for more..." 
(The Pogues, Fairytale of New York)

There's a very funny Spitting Image sketch where the candlelit choirboys of Kings College Cambridge stand poised to sing, organ playing softly in the background, choirmaster's arms randomly concertinering in and out as if squeezing bellows, the voiceover introduces them...and they launch into Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody. It's a little moment of genius, although the most striking thing for those in the know is the accurate portrayal of Stephen Cleobury's conducting.

The service has been broadcast on the radio since 1929 and on television since 1954, which means there is a 60th anniversary to celebrate this year. The radio broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is live, the television one is not. It is recorded earlier in December, possibly because the Michaelmas term at the University of Cambridge often finishes so early that the students taking part in the service need something to do to fill the time before Christmas Eve. They will only get themselves into trouble if they hang around unsupervised in the college quads for too long.

I always try to watch the television broadcast as for me - like most - it's the proper start of Christmas. We are usually settled wherever we need to be, wine may have been opened, the rest of the world is shut out, and if we had a fireplace that wasn't used for toy storage, the fire would be lit to cosy on down and get ready for the presents, port, good cheer and fine food of the following day. Or the squabbling, family irritations, panicked cooking and overindulgence, depending on how things are going. However, Carols From Kings can never be as entertaining now that my brother is no longer a music student at Cambridge University and therefore no longer able to point out all the tossers. "You see that bass singer?" my mum said gravely one year, "Well, your brother says that he is completely up his own arse."

Yes, even an atheist can enjoy carols in a church. There is euphoria to be found in beautiful singing regardless of the lyrics. I am writing this listening to Paul McCreesh's recording of a Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning (aka community singing of Praetorius in Roskilde Cathedral), one of the most stunning performances of anything I have ever heard, and which I break open every December like a bottle of Bailey's. I even hope to take my daughter to the crib service in the Minster this year. I have been to York's own Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve in the past, but a long sit in the cold, crowded aisles and a sermon from John Sentanu are still probably more than a bit beyond the patience of a four-year-old.

I am currently struggling to tell the nativity story (or "In a manger far away" as she calls it) to my young daughter, as to me it seems as fanciful, ridiculous and improbable as the story of a rotund red man living at the North Pole riding a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer that is able to deliver presents via chimneys to every child in the world in a single night. Suddenly I am having to explain God and angels and virgins and Romans and censuses and stables and stars and shepherds and evil and good kings and frankincense and myrrh to my curious child, who sang a song about them all in her nursery Christmas show and wants to know more. And I feel hypocritical gaily lying to her about Santa, but struggling to lie to her about the Nativity story, which I don't believe in either (or at least not the bits involving heavenly beings). I struggle that she is expected to grow out of believing in one, but not the other, when both sound like fairy stories. She may be expected to believe every word of the Nativity at school, when really a lot of it is scientifically preposterous. I feel the need to say quite clearly that this is what a lot of people think happened, but it's not quite what Mummy believes happened. And then I automatically sideline us as ones who go against the grain, which may not be comfortable for her young mind. Ultimately it's her choice what she believes, but I still think she needs to know that she has a choice, because no one knows for sure what did happen in Bethlehem all those years ago.

An atheist can enjoy carols in a pub more. We spent a glorious evening a couple of weeks ago in the company of Kate Rusby, a true Yorkshire lass from Barnsley. She grew up in the culture of the Sings of South Yorkshire, where every weekend from November onwards, people gather in the pubs to sing carols that the Victorians threw out of the churches for being too merry. And Kate Rusby has recorded some of the carols onto CD in her own beautiful folk style, and now takes them on tour each December. Beer is encouraged. The music is delightful. She has crocheted snowflakes hanging above the stage. A brass quintet add the finishing touches. She explains it all for herself here. (And yes, that it is the tune to "On Ilkley Moor Baht' at" in the opening number, one of at least three versions of While Shepherds Watched that Kate sings. However, it turns out that this famous Yorkshire tune was, disappointingly, composed in a place called Cranbook in Kent.)

Anyway, I did buy my daughter a 10p copy of the nativity story in the charity shop. It's an ancient Ladybird book that can be converted into a magic roundabout. I read it to her alongside Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas. They are both, after all, stories of cultural significance at this time of year. Here is Charlotte studying the nativity in the Italian cafe down the road while I tuck into panettone and mulled wine. Buon Natale.

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