Advent Firesiders

Music (2005)

I'm dreaming of a quiet Christmas, just like the ones we've never known.

Mr. Edison could not have imagined it when the first cylinders provided Carols in the drawing room for people who didn't have a pianist en famille. Then there was radio; cinema; television; the public address system. In early Victorian times, if you were in the right place at the right time, you might hear a barrel organ or a brass band playing carols, a spot of door-to-door singing and a couple of church services; that was it. No wonder they didn't make much of Christmas; apart from the fact there wasn't all that much money for taking time off, for presents and special food, the whole thing took place in near silence.

Just imagine an Advent without Classic FM, music in shopping centres, CDs, the Oxford Book of Carols and Carols for Choirs, Carols from every land, Carols with the Mother's Union, Carols with the Women's Institute, Advent Carols from John's, THE Carols from King's. Imagine the first year that anybody heard O Come All Ye Faithful, or Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

And after all that imagining you are nowhere close. Imagine Christmas without Bing Crosby or, even more remarkable, without Father Christmas. Imagine it without Jingle Bells, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and winter Wonderland.

Well, I can't quite do this myself but I do remember when the musical Advent calendar was much more sparse. After the lighting of the first Advent candle we started rehearsing a nativity play and carols for the week after Gaudete. Some years we went to the carol concert of a neighbouring school; but not often.

On Christmas Eve my greatest pleasure was standing in the butcher's queue even if it was only for a big chicken - in those days chicken was as expensive as proper ham is now - but I liked the expectation and the town brass band. At three in the afternoon I had the house to myself for Carols from King's. My mother was at the market as the mills knocked off at three. She would come back at five with tangerines, chestnuts and the annual stick of celery. I brought the sherry and port from the attic cupboard.

At six we stood by the civic crib under the civic tree to watch the  same civic brass band process from the town hall, followed by the Mayor in his chain and the Corporation. There were some carols and then we went home for a late tea before fretting until it was time for Midnight Mass. That was my Christmas music from start to finish.

Did it make any difference? Yes, I think it did. It's fashionable nowadays in our world of excess to say that less is more but I think less was really less. In those days only boys who went to public or cathedral schools got much past a dozen carols. So next time you hear Tavener's Lamb or Mawby's Jesus Christ The Apple Tree, be thankful not just for Jesus but for plenty.