The Tenth Blog Of Christmas: Thank You For The Music

sackville colleg

“Good King Wenceslas” will always hold a special place in my heart, for in 2003, on the 150th anniversary of the carol’s creation, I sung the carol outside Sackville College in front of the British media. I thought I did a good solo job, and the hundreds of other schoolchildren taking part did well too, taking particular glee in being able to say the word “sod” on national television.

Sackville College, a Jacobean alms-house, had its moment in Christmas music history cemented by one of its wardens the Reverend Dr John Mason Neale. He was a prominent hymn writer, with Good King Wenceslas among his compositions. Whenever I get home for Christmas, I inevitably meander through town admiring the lights, emerging at the top of the High Street to behold the College, and though it may look a little barren in the winter, the spirit of the carol still rouses me.

Asides from the small matter of the nativity, Christmas carols define the crib service at my local church St Swithuns, and with the place packed to the rafters each year, the crooning glides along the robust organ notes to create an ethereal atmosphere. I know carols aren’t for everyone, particularly if you’re not part of a Christian denomination,  but there’s still plenty of festive music to immerse yourself in.

Then there’s the onslaught from the world of retail. Your local supermarket will be slipping the odd “Last Christmas” and “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” by the end of November, before launching a full festive playlist in the last few weeks before the big day (no doubt I’ve noticed this more due to my experience of working in one), and any festive event will have Slade, Wizzard and The Pogues regularly playing out.

But asides from the classics, there are numerous covers and rarities. My godfather’s brother notably has a festive playlist on Spotify with 1001 Christmas songs, sprawling across every genre imaginable, and he makes a new festive compilation every year; my highlight was Earth Wind And Fire reworking one of their classics into “December.” I myself enjoy new discoveries too-  Andy Williams “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of Year” has been a notable addition to this year’s playlist.

With my house being particular appreciative in all kinds of music, Christmas music has always played a big part in defining the period. Yes, many are as corny and cliché as they come, but they also evoke such strong nostalgia of past Christmases and get my family all singing along to their favourites that I can never discredit it. Me and my Dad are always in charge of music at our Christmas Eve party, and I would be a fool if I said I didn’t immensely enjoy organizing it.

Also, let’s make this clear- I don’t listen to any Christmas music before December for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if it’s overplayed then you’re only going to remove that special feeling of festive cheer you associate with it, and like anything you indulge too much in, it’s only going to annoy you after a while. Even I find my ears grating at the thought of listening to another slow-jam cover of Merry Christmas Everybody- sure, the original has its charms, but the endless covers you hear never quite match up.

As a genre, there’s no denying that Christmas music will always be a guilty pleasure. However, I would be lying to myself if I didn’t underline the power that certain festive tunes have to remind me of home and comfort wherever I am in the world. Lord knows I can’t remember where I first heard “Fairytale of New York” or “I Believe In Father Christmas”; it was probably just at a Christmas party or the big day itself. But it’s how it’s become a staple over time that shows its true importance.

The Ninth Blog Of Christmas: Boxing Day

Boxing Day

It’s rare that you have a family member who has a birthday on Boxing Day, but even rarer when you have two! This is the unusual circumstance that has given my family a second Christmas Day, where we celebrate with my Dad’s side of the family on Boxing Day; a nice contrast to spending the main event with my Mum’s side. The two birthdays are my gran and one of my cousins, and the day involves us all journeying down to my gran’s to have a good catch up. With most cousins around my age, it’s interesting hearing how the year has treated them.

We’ve been doing it as long as I can remember, only changing location and number of family members present each year; we’re a pretty diverse group, so it always makes for an interesting occasion. It’s usually short and sweet, with a few final presents thrown in for good measure, which I think fits in nicely with Boxing Day’s early tradition of giving boxes to the poor; I’m not saying my family are poor for one second, but I can’t imagine spending it any other way.

You may find this surprising, especially considering that for many, it’s just another day; maybe a time to indulge in the sales or go on a family outing. Some European countries hold it as a second Christmas Day though, while Catholics hold it as St. Stephen’s Day, which commemorates the first Christian martyr. Many sporting organizations, such as the Premier League, even hold a full day calendar to entice fans along, and I always find my dad salivating over the listings.

These circumstances can affect my family too; with so many places now open on Boxing Day, occasionally a few of us have to work, but at the same time we never like to let my grandmother down. After all, Boxing Day is much less defined, which I think you need after the big day itself- the downside to so many rigid conventions is that it can be stressful making sure they are all met. Even though it gets harder each year to maintain the tradition, I’m still incredibly grateful to be part of the festivities. It’s still a public holiday after all, so I would stress you make the most of it too.

The Eighth Blog of Christmas: Christmas Day

christmas day pud

From a couple of years ago: debating the pudding choices, while my sister revels in the glory of it all.

When I was younger, the night before Christmas Day would transform me into a full blown insomniac. I would go to bed nice and early on Christmas Eve, only to wake up around 3 AM and see the stocking at the end of my bed and find myself giddy with anticipation at the day ahead. One year, too excited to even think about sleeping again, I filled the time with reading books- that old form of entertainment before we had iPods, iPads and Kindles- until 7 AM where I could finally justify running in to my parent’s room to reap the rewards of the day.

Now, my Christmas Eve is so jam packed that I never have any trouble getting a good night’s kip, but we all still manage to get up in the late morning to open our presents together. My Nan stays round, so there are five of us eagerly opening our stockings to see what Father Christmas has bought us each year, before we spend the morning enjoying our new gifts. It’s never Christmas without a new pair of socks and a toothbrush, and as usual he didn’t disappoint. Even though I’m now twenty two, I could never bear the idea of just giving money to my family; it just doesn’t compare to the moment of opening presents together.

I only ever have a slice of toast for breakfast, as I need to save room for the main attraction. At one, it’s over to my Aunt’s for Christmas Day lunch, where we all have a good catch up with my Mum’s side of the family before devouring what can only be described as the most delicious roast in existence. It’s not just the turkey- the sausage meat stuffing is to die for. If only I could write poems of tribute to the power of the stuffing. Everyone else in my family has tried to repeat the recipe, but no one has come close. Sorry Mum.

After that, it’s time for more presents from the family, before the ominous presence of pudding rears its head; somehow welcome, yet not at the same time. After that, I was in charge of the Christmas quiz, the first we’ve done in many years, and I never believed there would be so much stress from trying to choose the right questions. I changed the music round several times when I realised my “mainstream” choices were a bit too obscure.

It’s not often I realize how incredibly lucky I am at Christmas. The last Saturday before Christmas, dubbed “panic Saturday,” saw scores of shoppers frantically searching for something to encourage a smile from their family members on the big day. The upside of this is that you may just find the perfect little trinket or toy to bring joy to their Christmas. The downside is the cruel hypocrisy that while we go consumerist crazy, there are many who will be in poverty, in debt, or alone. 13 million in the UK alone will be in poverty. In 2015. What a golden age we live in.

I’m sorry if that might seem a rather sobering statement where really, on the big day, the last thing many of us want to think about is the problems that we face in the real world. It’s that reason exactly why we can’t have Christmas everyday, not simply because it wouldn’t be special anymore; the world as we know it wouldn’t be able to function properly if it was. I’m not saying go out and donate all you have to charities either; I’m simply saying you should value what you have each Christmas, and by that I mean those around you and what is intrinsically important in your life.

The Seventh Blog of Christmas: Christmas Eve

st swithuns xmas eve

Waking up to the smell of a succulent Christmas ham is heavenly; it works wonders in encouraging you to get out of bed. It’s December 24th, and my Mum is in military-style preparation mode for our annual Christmas Eve party. There’s just enough time to grab the last chocolate from the advent calendar before everyone joins in with lending a hand- whatever needs cooking or cleaning, the sooner it can be done the less stressed everyone will be.

I find it surprising that some festive schedules carry such flexibility on Christmas Day, when I compare it to the rigid tradition that lies within my family over the three day period. The celebrations start on Christmas Eve with our party, with my Mum providing a delicious spread and easing us into the guilt of eating too much over Christmas. Another part of Christmas Eve that me, my Mum and a few other family friends partake in, is going to our local church St Swithuns for the annual crib service.

It’s fair to say the crib service is one of the biggest gigs of the year for my local church; the vicar always takes time in the service to stress that Christianity is for life, not just for Christmas, which shows how important it is for drawing in new denizens. I’ve been going to the service for as long as I can remember, and I’ve watched scores of shepherds and kings march down the aisle in the same old costumes; I’ve even noticed pages progress to more important roles, and then I wonder how I can remember such things in comparison to revision notes.

Overall, the nativity is the ultimate feel-good story to enjoy at Christmas. Yes, it is the same story every year with the same old carols in-between, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable with each telling. I have been pondering this year’s crib service more than usual because this year I finally swayed from the awkward middle position of Agnostic to deciding I was Atheist. For me, if God made the universe, surely someone made God, and that you could keep going back in a never ending chain; it would have to start somewhere, so you might as well start with a Big Bang.

But this isn’t a matter for religion. I still highly enjoy the nativity story that provides part of the framework for Christmas, and I would loathe to give up the tradition of celebrating the story, but surely it is quite a contradictory and hypocritical image to see me in a church on Christmas Eve, singing carols praising God on high, when I don’t believe it myself? I suppose the difference is that I do believe in Jesus; I mean virtually all scholars who write on the subject accept that Jesus existed.

The main thing is, you cannot deny that Christmas day itself was partly born out of celebrating the birth of Christ, and in my opinion there are few things more joyful than celebrating the birth of a child. So yes, I will still be attending the church service, before going back to my family party and then on to town, spreading Christmas cheer along the way. Everyone should be allowed to celebrate Christmas in their own way, even if mine walks tenderly between different religious views.

The Sixth Blog of Christmas: The Heroes of Christmas

Christmas concert band

The last thing you expect to be doing on Christmas Day is pacing the corridors of a hospital ward, but that’s what my parents found themselves doing several years ago when one of my relatives had a heart attack. Being one of the youngest, I remained home with a few others, picking through the leftovers and taking our minds off things with a seasonal Vicar of Dibley. I suppose we look forward to Christmas because it seems to exist outside the norms of everyday life, immune to the problems that regularly invade it. That was the first time I fully realized that kind of existence is sadly not true, and also that for some it is just another day at work; yes, things go wrong on Christmas Day try as hard as you might to make it perfect, but you often imagine it to be something trivial. I can’t stress how much I am thankful to the doctors, nurses and paramedics who were working on Christmas Day and helped get my Nan back to recovery.

You often forget those who put in long hours to make sure everyone has the best Christmas possible. After all, Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of year, and there’s even part of me that breathes a sigh of relief once January comes and its over until the next one. The act of buying a present can be highly fulfilling, providing you know what the recipient wants; otherwise, it can be a struggle that only increases in severity as the big day draws near. If your son wants a toy plane, does it have to be a particular model? If you’re buying for your other half, are you going to set a budget on how much to spend? Or what if you think of a special family member, yet nothing springs to mind? It doesn’t take much for the anxiety to bubble over and become hostile.

Also, there is a kind of chaos unique to working in retail at Christmas. Bright lights and merry melodies blur into one coagulated festive mess as you try to finish one of the hundred-odd tasks you need to complete before the end of your shift, except you cannot walk more than five paces without a customer asking you where something is, or if the item that you definitely don’t have out the back IS out the back. I’m not being overly critical here; customers are the life blood of retail, and I want everyone to have the merriest Christmas possible. The only time it really grates is when you’re faced with a negative reaction. You have to remember that Christmas doesn’t happen without the scores of people who work all over the festive period, such as the postmen who get you your much needed present on Christmas Eve, or those who keep serving drinks until the early hours of New Year’s Day.

It’s not just about those who work over the festive period in the more traditional sense; think of the people in your life who really strive to make the Christmas season the best it can be. We have a massive party on Christmas Eve with family and friends which is primarily the hard work of my Mum; I help out as much as I can, but it will never be compared to how much my Mum does. Then, my Aunt hosts Christmas dinner for over a dozen of us on the big day itself, which is a tremendous achievement. Or what about all those events you attend over the festive period? Somewhere at the centre of all of them, someone is dashing around frantically ticking things off on their clipboard while never actually immersing themselves in the event they have put together. So, I’d like to raise a toast to those who work like hell during Christmas, because that’s what the true spirit of the season is. For them, Christmas is a frame of mind where you can’t settle for less.

The Fifth Blog of Christmas: Adventures at Standen

Standen outdoor tree

Memories are what define Christmas. It’s what makes us strive to make each year bigger and better. As the main event approaches, and last minute panic-buying of stocking fillers reaches peak intensity, the best experiences are the ones where you surround yourself with friends and family. You need days out that glitter with festive cheer, that take your mind off everything else you have to do to satisfy the season; events that release you from stress rather than add to it. Apparently I’m not the only one who believes this, as Standen, an arts and crafts home intricately designed by William Morris, was heaving with families as I dropped in for a Christmas tour yesterday.

I have to hold my hands up here and admit that I am a National Trust nerd; as a member, I almost feel like I have a small investment in each of the properties I visit… well, it’s certainly an idealistic vision to imagine, and probably the closest I will ever come to owning a castle. Standen is my local property, and I have visited it enough times that you would think there was nothing more to be gained. But as someone who has always been fanatical about English history, and whose holidays in the UK meant halfway stops at different properties across the country, I always enjoy a visit for the comforting mix of soothing nostalgia and whimsical educational value.

However, it’s one thing to enjoy the property on a normal day, but Standen is truly transformed into a Yuletide treat in December. It’s impossible to miss the courtyard Christmas tree as you arrive, which has a striking New Age design; rather than the usual dashes of red and green, the predominant colours are pink and orange, and really give the conventional paper chains and baubles a vivid contemporary twist. Given the property’s association with a prominent textile designer, it’s refreshing to see this emphasis on innovation in art, especially during a period which is so rigidly framed in our minds.

Standen indoor tree

Having said that, enjoying the splendor of an enormous tree emblazoned with traditional decorations was second to none, as was learning about Christmas throughout the ages in each room. Unfortunately we had come on the wrong day for Father Christmas, who would be dressed up in his traditional green suit, but I feel that I may be a bit out of place in the grotto at the age of 22. I know many bitter fogeys complain “Christmas is for the kids”, and it’s certainly true that there are certain aspects of the festive period that you can only really get away with as a youngster. However, the flip side is that there are other parts that are exclusive to an adult, and I would never go as far as saying it isn’t as magical for grown-ups.

Despite the weather feeling much too mild for winter, visiting Standen was just what I needed. Yes, I’m aware this post has been rather self-indulgent, but I suppose that’s just one side of Christmas. Of course it is a time for giving and selfless goodwill, but it is also for surrounding yourself with the things you love, and not just friends and family. Already I find myself looking back on this visit as one of my favourite from the 2015 season; it doesn’t have to be limited just to the big day itself after all. Get out there and do something worth reminiscing about in the next festive season, if only to inspire you to top that in 2016.

The Fourth Blog Of Christmas: The Christmas Jumper Curiosity

me Christmas jumper

I never imagined that the festive season would ever be defined by a fashion trend, but then I never imagined a fashion trend like a Christmas jumper. No matter how serious someone’s demeanour may usually be, you cannot help but smile at the sight of a festive garment. I was trying out a new local micro-pub the other night, when half a dozen jolly fellows bundled in, all adorning bright bold knitwear with all kinds of winter characters bursting out of them. Heads turned, eyebrows raised, but ultimately the level of merriment was raised beyond that of just the alcohol levels.

I’m an old hand at this fashion trend; four years ago, determined to make the most of my first festive season at University, I chose myself a Christmas jumper. Mine’s considerably neutral compared to the majority you see; it’s not overly bright or with any weird knobbly bits or flashing lights. It’s just navy with hints of red and reindeer and snowflake patterns. Dare I say it, it’s one you would consider wearing on a regular basis throughout December, rather than just as a gimmick for the office party. When I casually bought it three years ago, I had no idea of the phenomenon it would soon become.

Every shop has them too, in every design possible; from the more conventional patterns to even one of a Great White Shark in a Santa hat, and festive parodies of popular culture (how about Drake’s “Hotline Bling” poses in knitted form?). It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by choice, although the other way to look at it is that finding one will never be a difficult task. There’s even a Christmas Jumper Day dedicated to raising money for charity through wearing the ridiculous garment. More than anything, it has to be one of the most unusual fashion trends to have sprung up in living memory.

It doesn’t rely on how the wearer looks, nor is it remotely concerned with achieving some degree of sexiness. Its only purpose is to make the wearer look like a festive numpty, and put a smile on the face of everyone around them. It yells peace and goodwill to all, and very loudly if you buy one of the more outrageous designs. Of course, I have met a few sceptics in the past, but incredibly these are now in a very small minority. Christmas cynics are being rejected for more Christmas cheer, something I wholeheartedly support, with some of my friends even buying multiple jumpers for the festive season.

While part of me wants to indulge further, I admit I feel to confined by the conventions of Christmas, which restrict wearing the jumper to one month a year. I say have one, but make it your own! Have one that is not only a guilty pleasure, but one you lament having to lock away after New Year’s Day. Have one for the days browsing the Christmas markets, or wobbling around the ice skating rinks, or whatever defines your Christmas period. Have one that captures your personality. Embrace the ridiculous nature of the garment; if nothing, it’ll put a smile on your face whenever you catch yourself in the mirror.