The power, and responsibility, of choosing Christmas music

Singing together is something that people do at Christmas more than at any other time of year – unless, maybe, they are football or rugby fans.  The sound of a choir – especially with the frosty echo you get outside – seems to suggest tinsel and snowflakes.  In fact, in the song It Feels Like Christmas from The Muppet Christmas Carol, that’s the first line.
“It’s in the singing of a street-corner choir…”

Starting the season of singing Christmas songs in choir – for a musical director – is a microcosm of preparing for Christmas. Anyone who has had responsibility for buying presents and planning festivities will recognise the feeling:  How am I going to make sure it’s good enough this year?  I could work really hard and some people might still be disappointed. Expectations are high, and the emotions are super-charged after the blip of Christmas 2020. It has to be special, and magical, and give us the tingly feeling. 

We have such a big back-catalogue of Christmas songs now that we have to leave out somebody’s favourite every year.  And what about all the songs we haven’t sung yet? I’ve started arranging It Feels Like Christmas but we haven’t got time to learn it.  I’ve always thought What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding would fit beautifully in a Christmas programme. I keep finding, arranging and writing new things but to put them into the programme something else has to give way.  

There has to be room for a new song, most years – there was a time when we didn’t know Gaudete or Hail Smiling Morn, after all.  But this year I think not. We want to be able to recapture the joy of singing our old favourites, and that won’t happen without a bit of work.

Do we go for a big set of songs and race through them – which runs the risk that people sing all the same mistakes as in 2019 plus a few more, and new members of the choir just hang on by the skin of their teeth?  Do we focus on a few songs in more detail and hope that the singers appreciate rediscovering them and don’t get frustrated?

There are always a couple of people who choose to opt out of choir while we are doing our Christmas set.  I completely understand this.  Some people don’t want to sing anything on a Christian theme, because they are atheist, or anti-organised religion, or have another faith. Some people just find the emotional overload of the Christmas songs too much. I’m reminded of one of the checklists in The Sloane Ranger Handbook (which we thought was very funny in 1983): “*Don’t cry at funerals, *Do cry when you sing Christmas carols.”

The power of Christmas songs to touch the heartstrings is undeniable.  Is it because we have heard them year after year since we were very small? Is it because we sang them with our grandparents, parents, schoolfriends – all the important people down the years – and now sing them with children and grandchildren? We miss the people who are no longer with us, and the people we no longer are.