Posts Tagged ‘ Christmas ’


Today is Advent Sunday in the church calendar, the day when preparations for Christmas officially begin.  Of course, in the retail world, preparations for Christmas began as soon as the Hallowe’en stock was removed, or in some cases even earlier.  And other aspects of festive activity have also begun in earnest – baking of cakes, rehearsals for nativity plays and pantomimes, switching on of lights and selection of presents.  But in the church, Advent Sunday is the day when we are supposed to begin spiritual preparation, looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth, or rather of his incarnation.

As well as the opportunity (sadly missed this year) to get cracking with singing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, the start of advent means something very specific.  In my house, it means decorations!  The boxes of sparkly, shiny objects, the Christmas trees, the sack of cuddly toys with a vague Christmas theme and the bag of tinsel will not make an appearance until this day of days.  And then, the level of activity is high.  Furniture must be moved (unearthing long-forgotten dog toys in the process), lights must be strung on the plants in the front window, nativity sets must be compared and re-arranged, and tinsel must adorn every possible location.  The cellophane will be removed from this year’s edition of Carols For a Cure, and the tracks will be listened to and variously enjoyed, discussed and laughed at.  A lengthy conversation about the optimum date for viewing the Muppets Christmas Carol will ensue.  There is little that is overtly spiritual in all of this, but it is an important time for the household, a few hours to share and enjoy, a ritual which has become an essential part of the rhythm of our lives.


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Simple joys

At vaguely this time last year, I wrote about the great mystery of Christmas, of God abiding on Earth.  As I don’t think I can sum up how I feel about Christmas any better, I won’t, but will mention something that struck me on Christmas morning.  This year, as the children at church demonstrated some of the presents they had opened before venturing out in the rain, I was struck by the differences between gifts and the levels of happiness shown by the younglings.  A couple had whizzy technological gifts – a laptop and a PSP – and seemed quite content with those.  Others had clothing, a table tennis table or a dolly that does most of the things that real babies do.  But the child who seemed happiest with what he had received was proudly demonstrating a small plastic elephant, part of a Lego (or Lego-style) zoo set.  He didn’t need it to dance, make noises, move, or even connect with other bits of the zoo.  It was an elephant and that was enough for him.

He had been given other presents, of course, but a few plastic animals made him happy, and that warmed my heart.  In a year when parents have been selling their kidneys (metaphorically, one hopes) to secure a PSP or a Wii for their demanding offspring, it was comforting to see so much pleasure being taken in something so simple.  My favourite children are always those with a healthy, active imagination, those who can play with a few milk bottle tops stuck on a cardboard box and turn it into the console of the TARDIS, or a laptop or whatever they need for their game that day.  They’re more tiring than those who just want to get out their latest console, but so much more rewarding, so much more real, and so much more likely to be the future in any meaningful way.

It also made me ponder on how much I manage to enjoy the simple things in life.  Bread and cheese.  A warm bed.  The sunrise.  These are the things that really make life worth living, surely.  A turkey roast with all the trimmings beside a twinkling Christmas tree which can sway in time to carols played through your laptop is great, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I wonder whether the simple things in life aren’t more worth having in some inexplicable way.

In a song from Pippin, Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics suggest that a man who cannot appreciate the ‘Simple Joys’ of life, such as sweet summer evenings and sharing a supper, is somehow chained, might as well be dead.  “Wouldn’t you rather be a left-handed flea… than a man who never learns how to be free, not till the day he dies.”  Simple joys at Christmas include my mother’s face when she opens any present (you could give her a box of tissues and she’d still be delighted); receiving communion at the midnight service; discovering what somebody at work thinks you might like in the secret santa; and sprouts.  I love sprouts.  I’m a big fan of most green vegetables in fact, so that’s perhaps not surprising.

Christmas is a simple thing and a profound thing, as is life in general.  I should perhaps resolve to spend more time appreciating the simple things, not just at Christmas, but all year round.  What are your simple pleasures?

Carols For a Cure

It has come to that time of year when legions of people search through their CD collections for their Christmas music, full of bells, pipe organs and heavenly choirs.  Or, quite possible, cloying sentiment about being home for a good old-fashioned Christmas just like we’ve always known.  Almost every household in the land (including many non-believing households who just like the time of year) has at least one of them somewhere, and will dust it off for a few weeks before putting it back to sleep for eleven months.  My mother has quite a number of tapes and CDs now with a whole variety of Christmas tunes on them, and will play nothing else for a week or so either side of the day itself, though she will make an exception for music that was received as a gift.  A favourite yuletide game is to guess who many times the hideous Amy Grant collection of seasonal sentiments will hit the tape deck.  I can generally cope with it once through, more than that is likely to cause an allergic reaction and a sudden urge to listen to rap just for some form of balance.

It has become a yearly tradition with me now to purchase the annual edition of Broadway’s Greatest Gifts: Carols for a Cure, an album featuring the performers from numerous Broadway shows contributing a wide variety of seasonal tracks in order to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.  This is a theatrical charity concerned with awareness and fundraising in the continued fight against AIDS, among other causes.  Most of their fundraising is carried out in New York, as their name rather suggests, but this is one of the ways that far-flung people can support them, by ordering their Christmas CDs through their web site.

The first listen to any of these sets is always intriguing, as the different shows come up with an incredible mixture of songs and the odd spoken piece between them.  From traditional arrangements of familiar carols to more modern versions, alongside comedy pieces, new Christmas songs and the occasional track celebrating one of the other holidays celebrated at this time of year.  The results range from side-splitting to yawn-inducing and from beautiful to mildly painful.  But there are always enough of the very good tracks to make the set worth buying even without that extra glow of knowing that money is going to a good cause.

Over the last couple of days, while switching mode from ‘study’ to ‘sleep’, I have given this year’s batch its first spin, and have once again been struck by the mixture and by the generosity of the numerous people who contribute towards it.  Highlights include rather marvellous renditions of such carols as ‘Joy to the World’, ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ and ‘What Child Is This?’, the last of these being sung by the cast of Spring Awakening, a rock musical, perhaps proving they can sing in different idioms.  Light-hearted entries that tickled this librarian include the cast of Wicked deciding how best to sing ‘Jingle Bells’, where the country version really has to be heard to be believed, and the good people of Curtains telling the rather lovely story of the ‘Monotone Angel’.  There’s a bit of Mozart in the pot as well, and the whole set concludes with a duet of the most wonderful ‘O Holy Night’.  Not the greatest version I’ve ever heard, but still welcome.

So here I sit, listening to everyone from the Altar Boyz to Xanadu spread a bit of Christmas cheer in a glorious pot pourri that should contain something for everyone.  Not every track pleases, and one or two are really aimed at Broadway insiders, but this has become part of the countdown for Christmas for the Singing Librarian.  However, can someone please explain ‘Dominick the Donkey’ to me – what is that all about?

Now abiding

‘God with us’, that is, from the lyrics of ‘Angels From the Realms of Glory’, one of my favourite carols (with a tiny bit of poetic licence, since abiding is a much nicer word than residing).  This Christmas, I have been struck many times by the word Emmanuel, one of the names applied to Jesus, which means (or so I’m told, not speaking any of the languages that were spoken at the time of His life) ‘God with us’.  For me, this is the central mystery and magic of Christmas, generally a magical and wonderful time anyway.

Christmas seems to be a time when the important things get overwhelmed by the details and the window dressing, for Christian believers and secular celebrants alike.  Making sure we have the right number of sprouts, the right type of crackers and decorations that fit a colour scheme becomes more important than spending time with the people we love.  People send cards to people they don’t like because they feel they ought to, and buy presents at the last minute for Fred in the office who got them a gift, without putting any thought into it. 

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