“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.