About this Recording
NA214912 - Christmas Collection (The) (Unabridged)

The Christmas Collection


Christmas brings out the best and the worst in us. Certainly there can be no richer seam to mine for an anthology. Among what Thomas Love Peacock calls the ‘many poetical charms in the heraldings of Christmas’ there are eulogies by saints and diatribes from curmudgeons. This collection offers Christmas expounded by divines, sung by rustics, deplored by philosophers, made mystical in stories and summed up in a line by Elizabeth Jennings: ‘The hush, the star, the baby, people being kind again’.

It includes complete versions of such old favourites as The Little Match Girl, The Night Before Christmas, Ring Out, Wild Bells and Christmas Day in the Workhouse, but also much that will, I hope, be unfamiliar. It moves from the simple pleasures observed by John Clare (‘And children, ‘tween their parents’ knees, / Sing scraps of carols o’er by heart’) to the miseries endured by Kilvert (‘I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins’).

It tells of how the ‘superstitious time of the Nativity’ was made a political pawn in the time of John Evelyn and of dissenters over-indulging themselves with ‘plum porridge’; of the shortages and contrivances of Christmas on the Home Front, and the wartime truce during which German and British forces exchanged carols and cigarettes.

There is, inevitably, much mention of food, as befits the day which C. Day Lewis calls ‘a coral island in time where we land and eat our lotus’. There are ancient feasts and traditional delights; recipes for boar’s head, ‘rare mince pies’, ‘well-spic’d hippocras’ and how to pull blazing raisins from the snapdragon—and how to cook possum.

Themes recur. The christmas tree—‘a tree of fable, a phoenix in evergreen’. The yule log, part of which must be kept to tend the Christmas log next year in order to keep the devil away. Drink, most notably Mr Pickwick’s ‘mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look and a jolly sound that was perfectly irresistible’. And of course presents: explorations of the nature of giving from Martial (‘Gifts are like hooks…’), Betjemen’s ‘sweet and silly Christmas things, / Bath salts and inexpensive scent / And hideously ties so kindly meant’ and the mysterious green omnibus in G.K. Chesterton’s haunting tale of The Shop of Ghosts.

The Three Wise Men (‘in their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones’) haunt poets (that was Yeats) and divines alike—very alike indeed in the case of Launcelot Andrewes’ 1622 sermon on their advent, the words of which, it was a shock to realise, would be borrowed almost syllable for syllable by T.S. Elliot: ‘A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in winter. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, “the very dead of winter”.’

Christmas has its horrors as well as its joys. Edmond Gosse’s father savagely rakes the plum pudding secretly made by the servants into the ashes of the fire; Southey deplores the social mobility that, he feels sure, will see the end of all the old Christmas customs within a generation.

He was of course wrong. The bulk of this anthology is a celebration of the greatest festival of the year, part pagan, part Christian, ambitiously generous, wholly human. But no one summed it up better than Nicholas Breton in his 1626 Fantastickes. ‘I hold a memory of Heaven’s Love, and the world’s peace, the mirth of the honest, and the meeting of the friendly.’

I’ve also included a complete Mummers’ play in memory of the primary school at East Kennet, Wiltshire where an inspired headmistress used to lay one on annually to the great delight of the children and parents alike: Mrs Tomlin, the whole anthology is dedicated to you as a tribute to those glorious annual Christmases—and the splendid education—you gave so many children for so many years.

Notes by Christina Hardyment


The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue

Worcester Cathedral Choir, Donald Hunt

CORELLI Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, Nos. 7–12 8.550403
Capella Istropolitana, Jaroslav Krechek

Medieval Carols 8.550751
Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly

Andrew Sackett

BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols 8.553183
New London Children’s Choir, Ronald Corp

Hungarian Radio Choir

Eteri Andjaparidze, piano

Christmas Goes Baroque I 8.550301
CSSR State Philharmonic Orchestra, Peter Breiner

Christmas Goes Baroque II 8.550670
CSSR State Philharmonic Orchestra, Peter Breiner

Music programmed by Nicolas Soames

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