Christmas Preamble - a Memory


© Jack Blair, Photographer

Lights, candles, action! Christmas is breaking out all over.


We are at that time of the year again when most people rise to a more elevated level of care and consideration for their fellow man. I think it is a good thing. I believe it is all about starting over or a birth of a new chance at life. Whatever the motivation, the result is common - a great celebration and an opportunity to reflect.


For me, it is a time of the year when, more than any other, I remember most of the same moments from my past years. The memories start as a child living in Regina, to growing up in Calgary, my university years, then as a young man starting a new life, first in England and then back in Calgary. My wife and I started our own traditions and continued those with our two boys. I migrated from the wonder of Christmas as a little boy focussed mostly on Santa Claus’ generosity (if I was very good), to raucous Christmases with close friends (before kids), to being a father and trying to provide a Christmas similar to that which gave me such great memories. Now we celebrate Christmases with grandchildren through whom we are realising some new traditions.


The common thread through all this evolution was and still is Christmas music. I always found that, for most people, Christmas carols opened up a feeling of happiness while others look to their faith. Every Christmas I get the chance to reaffirm this feeling.


Several years back, we went to the Mustard Seed benefit concert called Music for a Winter Evening. The choir and special guest were great, but what I came away with was the good feeling I got from the organist’s music. She was a young lady, diminutive in stature, but my goodness, could she make the Carthy Pipe Organ in the Jack Singer Hall stand on end. The culmination of the evening was an opportunity for the choir, guests, and audience to participate in singing O Come All Ye Faithful, accompanied by the organist playing David Willcocks’ incredible arrangement of that music. As they say in the world of organists, she let all the stops out.


I have some good memories of that carol. One in particular was in 1966, during my first year living in England. I was in London and walking past open doors at Westminster Cathedral when my attention was captured by the music of O Come All Ye Faithful coming from inside. The music sounded like a huge choir accompanied by a significant pipe organ. I had never heard that carol sound as powerful as that before. I sheepishly wandered through the doors, expecting to be asked to leave any moment, but no such thing happened. What I found was the choir and organist of the cathedral practising for the Christmas service which was a few days away. Today, such a practice session would probably be behind closed doors to keep out the crowds, but back then only about ten or twelve of us were caught up in the magic of the moment. That was the first time I heard the Willcocks arrangement of that carol and I was overwhelmed by the majesty of the music. The way in which the descant is presented is, musically, simply over the top. I think David Willcocks is the master of the descant.


Although the choir sounded like it was a mass of thirty or more voices, in fact it was only about fifteen. That augmentation was because they had trained voices, were completely in tune with each other, and were singing in a hall with excellent acoustics. I sat and listened until they finished that piece and longer while they practiced a few others. What an evening - what a memory.


At the more recent concert, I was transported back there in some ways, but in others, a new, special memory was created. I won’t forget it.


In case you're interested: O Come All Ye Faithful (arr. D. Willcocks) - Kings College Choir

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