An English Christmas 2: Mince Pies In Royal David’s City

When I lived in the US, Christmas always seemed to start just after Thanksgiving. Sure, there were Christmas displays up in some stores before that, but only to give people something to grumble about. We knew that it wasn’t open season on Christmas until Santa Claus showed up at the end of Macy’s parade.

Here in the UK there’s no national celebration in late November, so there’s no natural or definitive start to the Christmas season; it just creeps up on you. But there is, for many people, an accepted starting point for Christmas itself: at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve when BBC radio broadcasts the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College in Cambridge. (I’ve put a link to it on the right-hand side of this page under Featured Links; the BBC will leave the recording there for people to listen to only for the next seven days, so if you’re interested, don’t wait.)

I listen every year, maybe because singing in a choir is the closest I ever got to playing a team sport, I still love the sound and remember what it feels like to perform, and I don’t have that many opportunities during the rest of the year to hear a really good choir. They usually do some of the medieval carols that I love anyway, but that are especially satisfying when sung in a medieval mini-cathedral like this “chapel”, built over a hundred years from the middle of the 15th century to the middle of the 16th. Why start Christmas at King’s? It’s traditional. But if you need more of a reason, you might be interested to find that King’s College is officially named “The King’s College of Our Lady and St Nicholas in Cambridge”, so there’s a pretty good connection to Christmas built in.

Some of the carols everybody knows here have the same words that Americans sing, but set to different tunes, and the British also have lots of Christmas carols I never heard until I moved here. Did any American readers out there grow up singing “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree”? One of these new-to-me carols, “Once In Royal David’s City”, sung by one choirboy alone, always starts the service. As I understand it, two or three choirboys have practiced the part, but no one knows who will do the solo until everyone is in place, the director raises his hands, and finally indicates who is to sing. That, I’m told, is supposed to stop them from being so nervous.

Right. If I were one of them, the suspense would crank me up to peaks of anxiety I can scarcely imagine. It gives me palpitations just to think about it.

They also include modern carols, some of them commissioned for this Festival, either this year or in previous years; maybe these will grow on me, but they seem dark and muddy. Okay, the words may sound silly, but give me “Ding Dong Merrily On High” any time. Some of the modern compositions seem to have been stripped of any scrap of the joy and goodwill that make some of the traditional songs such a treat.

And speaking of treats—I was in the kitchen making my mince pies while I listened. That’s the second of the three English Christmas desserts. The British serve these little tarts with brandy butter, but that’s going too far for me; I want to taste the joy and goodwill of the brandy and orange zest, sharp and clear, and not muddy them up with cream.

So bring on Christmas. I’ve got the mince pies made and I’ve heard the little boy start the carols; I’m ready.

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