The Holiday Spirit : Music

In my ongoing quest to encapsulate our varying British and American Christmas experiences, I’m mulling on seasonal songs. There is nothing that says Christmas to me so much as carols and festive tunes.

There is a great tradition, both classical and pop, in both our adopted countries, and it always amazes me that nary the ‘twain shall meet.

So many songs considered sanctimoniously classic in one country are absolutely unheard of in the other. I guess holiday hits sometimes just don’t transcend borders.

For instance, I have never once heard Feliz Navidad or Holly Jolly Christmas in any supermarket, shopping mall or festive fair in Britain.

After a quick YouTube demonstration, Bean admits he’s never heard either of these songs in his life (and he remembers every song ever; it’s an eerie superpower), which is proof enough for me. There must be some mid-Atlantic vortex in which Christmas chart-toppers fall.

Likewise, my life apparently had a gaping Christmas-Number-One shaped hole in it before my emigration to the UK.

Now I can’t imagine a holiday without Cliff Richard. Or the Pogues. Or that inexplicable, amazingly weird Jesus-Spaceman song. British Christmas music is so utterly, well, British.

Desipte the international fervour surrounding Mariah Carey and Michael Buble (lord only knows why), I suppose Christmas songs are more culturally specific than I appreciated. But it’s actually the church-going carols I find the most amazing and perplexing in our mishmash of holiday internationalism.

One of my favourite British holiday traditions is the big, old fashioned Carol Service.

We usually go to a generic, all-encompassing festive sing-along with hundreds of other people; pretty much every village hall, local choir, and community chapels of every stripe host one this time of year.

Ten or a dozen songs are interspersed with the Nativity story or other related readings and poems, sometimes Biblical, often just purely festive, followed by mulled wine and mince pies (here’s an example of one).

For me, there is nothing more Christmassy that sharing joy and music with a room full of cosy, cheerful strangers. It’s pure bliss.

One year a guest chaplain at the University (who studies the Bible in a historical context) gave the most amazing lecture on the Gifts of the Magi – and the preciousness of giving things you value, of things that are a true sacrifice and generous blessing (while tacitly asking, wouldn’t a baby in the straw prefer a blanket to frankincense, no matter how prestigious?). It remains one of my favourite outings to this day.

Anyway, my carol service addiction has led to two horizon-broadening discoveries.

One, I’ve learned a raft of new carols which I love. Perhaps a bit sombre for office holiday parties, but rather beautiful. In The Bleak Midwinter may be my very favourite, but then, Rossetti is sort of a goddess.

If you’re in the mood for some new (if old fashioned) tunes this season, may I heartily recommend:

Once in Royal David’s City

Ding Dong Merrily On High (forgive me, I know it’s Charlotte Church)

Unto Us a Boy is Born (and no, not the one from Handel’s Messiah)

The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came

See in Yonder Manger Low (also little kids)

And reason two I have ranted about on numerous occasions. You see,  there are several carols which have been dismembered and reconstructed over the years.

For many carols, the same lyrics trip to a different tune on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Heartily confusing at first, but adding extra fun if you’re a carol nerd like me.

Some have outright winners while others just have two equal variations, but see what you think as these holiday tunes go head-to-head:

Away In A Manger



O Little Town of Bethlehem



While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night



* neither of these are the version of this carol I like best, but I can’t seem to find it online. Poop.  If you speak musical shorthand, it goes 1 8 76 5 6 4 5 3 4 5 1 4 3 2– 1. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear



Most confusingly however, the tune Americans know as Angels We Have Heard On High, is the tune to Angels From The Realms of Glory in the UK. Just Listen. It is an awesome tune, but the one I grew up with goes something like this (ahem, minus the lute…).

I still honestly don’t know if Brits just use the same tune twice (or three times) or if there is a undiscoverd gem awaiting my repertoire. Perhaps that’s my mission this festive season.


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