Christmas comes but once a year. For some of us the very best of times – a reliable pleasure that grows more intense and treasured as the years go by. Sadly,for some others – the worst of times and an ordeal to be feared as it approaches and then endured until all the tinsel has been packed away for another year.
I am firmly in the Christmas is a glorious celebration camp. I love bright stars in dark December skies with flurries of snow dusting the earth beneath my feet. I love the gathering sense of anticipation as the season advances. I love seeing people smiling to themselves as they go about their routine business now charged with a ‘this is the last time I’ll do this before Christmas’ awareness. I love hunting out our well packed away- some would say well hidden – Christmas decorations and wondering if the expensive new lights from last year will work or should I have bought the sets I saw at such a discount only yesterday.
I love firmly deciding that of course only a real needle shedding tree will do with a wreath for the door and a crib for the hearth as well. I love the excitement of the children’s last week at school – what shall we buy for the teacher and this terms best friend? I love remembering Christmases past: the ones when I was a child oblivious to all the work involved in ensuring everyone and everything was thought about and properly looked after. The ones when I was a carefree and careless student carousing through every day and every night certain of my own immortality and soon to be recognised global significance.
The courting Christmases where love bloomed and plans were whispered for the Christmases we would make so magnificent in the years and decades ahead. The just married Christmases freighted with a ‘Are we really in charge now we and can do anything we want?’ thrill. The ‘Now there’s a baby in the house Christmas here really is Christmas’ Christmas and the ones after where we solemnly said, ‘Well, he will expect us to maintain all our family traditions again this year’.
I remember and cherish the Christmas where the star present only arrived late on Christmas Eve packed by demonic elves who ensured only a chainsaw could remove the vacuum packing. This was the star present that came with no assembly instructions apart from a minuscule diagram and a list of 56 parts to be tortured together before dawn broke and we all agreed that Santa Claus had got it exactly right this year too.
I remember the first Christmases after my father and my mother died when their absence was an ache that filled my stomach to bursting point and when I barely spoke their names for fear of breaking down. I remember the Christmas when suddenly I started saying, ‘Mum and Dad would really have loved this’ and realising that I would always share that Christmas and every Christmas with them – for where did I learn to love but from them?
I remember the sound of off key Carollers outside our door somehow making it all the way through, ‘Silent Night’ and the sound of our rehearsed to infinity local church choir hushing the packed congregation with their perfect rendition of the same work and thinking both versions were what we needed to hear at that precise moment. I remember lighting Christmas candles and knowing that my prayer would be answered even if I wouldn’t be able to recognise how or when.
I remember many, many Christmas songs from many different eras in many different styles (as you might expect if you are a regular Jukebox patron) that I resolve each year to start listening to earlier and earlier to get into the Christmas spirit. So, harvesting a selection of personal favourites I propose to share a score or so of these with you over the next fortnight until we all raise our Christmas glasses in celebration of a birth and a beginning that continues to offer a blessed eternal hope for all mankind.
Let’s set this sleigh on its way with a Christmas classic from 1957. Bobby Helms’, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ always raises good cheer every December (come to think of it the same can be said when we listen to it, as we do, in February, May and August). This song summons up the, ‘I like Ike’ Ozzie and Harriet days of the comfortable blue skies 1950s for me like no other Christmas song. I’m surprised Bob Dylan didn’t include it in his tender and wholly successful homage to the era, ‘Christmas In The Heart’.
1956/1957 was Bloomington born Bobby’s golden time. He had a great country and pop hit with, Fräulein’ followed up with another substantial success in, ‘My Special Angel’. But his pop immortality was sealed with the toe tapping, smile inducing, always coming up fresh and welcome 45 issued just days before Christmas in 1957, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’. Written by Joseph Carleton Beale and James Ross Boothe the song has become a much loved and much recorded staple of the Christmas season.
Under the,’A’s’ alone I see it has been covered by everyone from Chet Atkins to Arcade Fire to Alvin And The Chipmunks (which I think we can all agree is quite a stretch!). Yet, no one has come anywhere near matching the easy charm and relaxed swing of the original. I’m already looking forward to hearing it next year!
Next a very different tone from one of the premier singer – songwriters of the modern era, Mary Chapin Carpenter. ‘Come Darkness, Come Light’ is the Christmas meditation of a schooled professional with a sharp eye and a battered heart.
Mary recognises that the spiritual message of Christmas is that a gift has been granted not to the grand and the deserving alone but to the broken and the wounded,the fearful and the doubting (which is most of us) as well. It is those who know the fell dark who turn most gratefully to the light. So whether you come running or walking slow towards the light know that it was made to shine on you and that the darkness no matter how deep can never extinguish this light.
Mary has the confidence and steadiness of soul to let the song speak with minimal accompaniment. This is the title song of her 12 songs of Christmas CD which comes highly recommended along with her entire cannon.
Each post during this season will also include an extract from a favourite seasonal poem. Today it is, ‘December’ by John Clare a poet who was deeply atuned to the turning of the seasons and the rhythms of rural life.
‘… And some, to view the winter weathers,
Climb up the window-seat with glee,
Likening the snow to falling feathers,
In fancy’s infant ecstacy;
Laughing with superstitious love,
O’er visions wild that youth supplies’
Of people pulling geese above,
and keeping Christmas in the skies.’