Tag Archives: Christmas

The crowds arrive


St Francis of Assisi is usually credited as the inventor of the crib as a spiritual and devotional object at Christmas.

A few centuries later in another part of Italy, at the palace of the Reggia di Caserta, was built one of the largest cribs and nativity tableaux in Europe.



Mary and Joseph are hidden among dozens of figures, showing the town of Bethlehem crowded both for the census and then with successive groups wanting to visit the baby Jesus.




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A splash of Spanish colour


Happy New 2018!

And, to welcome it in, some photographs of the beautiful Nativity and Epiphany tableaux in the 17th century Church of Santa Ursula in Adeje, Tenerife.



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The world of Winterson


Because Jeanette Winterson are I are close to the same age, I can remember the fuss around her arrival on the literary scene. Furthermore, I had a bit more interest in her than in other writers who may be similar but who came later. For example, in 1990, I watched the BBC adaptation of her debut autobiographical novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit, which is the type of “misery” text which I would normally abhor and ignore.

An audience should of course always concentrate on a writer’s work rather than on his/her personality, but Winterson was always a high-profile and intriguing public character. She was overtly lesbian several years before the celebrity of Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay; she was fiercely proud of her regional and working-class roots but equally a successful member of the metropolitan literati from a young age, with her famous friends and partners and homes both in the countryside and in London’s historic and gentrified Spitalfields.

I had not actually read a complete Jeanette Winterson book until her recent Christmas Days,  which alternates 12 Christmas themed stories with 12 pieces of mixed history, personal reflection and recipes of Yuletide food and drink.

One of my two favourite stories is “The Mistletoe Bride”, in which I felt sure I detected similarities with the type of sensual fantasy story Angela Carter wrote in The Bloody Chamber. Interviews from earlier in Winterson’s career suggest she would scoff at such comparisons – she pointedly rejects the term “magic realism” which was often applied to Carter – and indeed it does look as if she was an independent player in such genres as early as her second and third novels The Passion and Sexing the Cherry .   

 My other favourite story is “Dark Christmas” , which seems influenced by the stories of  M.R. James, several of which were dramatized on BBC in the 1970s under the heading  A Ghost Story for Christmas.  It is possible of course that entertainment like that was not encouraged within the highly individual family Christmases which the young Winterson experienced with her Evangelical Christian family.   

Several parts of the book refer to the religious origins of Christmas, and Winterson’s knowledge of (and perhaps even affection for) the Bible shows in some vivid imagery like the animal narrator’s observation of the Nativity in “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me” and the perspective of the Annunciation  from one untitled story on her website:  An unmarried woman sits at a table…The table trembles…As she crouches (under the table) she sees beautiful feet, strong like an animal, bare like a dancer…”

 Until Christmas Days my most recent acquaintance with Winterson was her BBC Radio 4 series in 2014,  Manchester: Alchemical City , still available on iPlayer.



Three photographs which reflect topics covered in “Manchester: Alchemical City”: here, Victoria railway station, below, part of the canal network through the centre of the city, and, at the foot, the interior of the independent Portico Library.






My listening was prompted by a memorable visit to Manchester and I found the programmes overall a stimulating review of history and culture. The title summarises her argument that the people of Manchester have always been gifted with the ability to turn dirt and base materials into gold and riches, whether they were the medieval alchemist and scientist John Dee, the builders of the first ever canal the Bridgewater, the textile manufacturers and traders of the 19th century Cottonopolis, political visionaries like Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, the Chartists and the Suffragettes or Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker religious sect. (Mind you, the argument was stretched too thinly in her episode on popular music!)

Christmas Days led me to Winterson’s own website with its archive of her journalism. To single out only one, her piece about darkness has some alluring sensual details about different physical appetites for this time of year.  



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Some reflections on some Christmas songs


The annual release of pop/rock songs on a Christmas theme is still widely mythologised  despite long-term reductions in sales. Yet it was a tradition which became established gradually and accidentally. At the start of the 1970s we already had Phil Spector’s distinctive Christmas Album which seemed to follow the playful style of a novelty record like Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph”. Alongside was the more earnest tone of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”.

In 1973 came three of the most well-known and re-released Christmas singles, but these were simply the new releases of established groups. “Merry Christmas Everybody” by Slade was the latest in a series of hits which continued for several more years. In contrast, Wizzard’s  “I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day” turned out to be practically the end of their career. Elton John was just getting into his career stride and “Step into Christmas” got a much lower chart placing than the previous two possibly just because he had released other records recently or that this one reached the shops too close to Christmas Day.     

However this was the start of a routine. Popular music acts both famous and aspiring would release a single around Christmas following some tried and trusted lyrical (and sometimes musical) templates. Some you liked to hear again each December, some you definitely didn’t. In this time of goodwill perhaps I might muse at greater length on three Christmas singles over the next 40 years which made particular impressions on me.

“I Believe in Father Christmas”, released by the recently deceased Greg Lake in 1975, is definitely in the sombre vein of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”.  Childhood sentimentality is rejected in the lyrics, which were written by Pete Sinfield: “they told me a fairy story” but “I woke up” and “saw (Father Christmas) through his disguise”. World peace is a principal desire of the narrator but not yet available; “hopeful” optimism is appropriate but requires individual effort: “the Christmas we get we deserve”.  

The song’s slow tempo tune was livened by chiming percussion and an acknowledged steal from a classical melody by Prokofiev. Happily it was a big hit and was played regularly on Radio 1 during subsequent Yuletides. Ironically, since Lake released the record as a diversion from his normal band work, it may be the record he is now most known for.

I remember in the mid-1980s saying to someone of my age, “There was a time when we thought that “I Believe in Father Christmas” was as grown-up and intelligent as a Christmas pop song could be” and the other chap agreed. Mind you, at the same time, I heard (or read) cool new young BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw saying that he made trips to the emerging musical countries of Africa and Latin America around Christmas “so that I don’t have to hear Greg Lake on the radio” !

It was only a couple of years later when I heard on the radio a Christmas-themed record by a band I quite liked but who didn’t usually appear on Top of the Pops. A few days later, I heard the song again and by now I loved it. Although I rarely bought singles, I decided I must purchase this one, because the band was not yet popular, so the record would certainly not be a hit and would not be played frequently on the radio.

I was quite wrong. The record, “Fairy Tale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, was a big hit that Christmas of 1987 and became a Christmas radio staple.

Today I find enough things to dislike in the record that I have to think back a bit carefully to remember exactly what I first enjoyed in it. One attraction was certainly the references to New York, a place I loved both in its idealised and real forms and which I had already been lucky enough to visit twice. (The original single’s sleeve had a wonderful old photograph – below –  of the city sky-line). A musical strength was the potent mix of the voices of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl as they presented the romantic images of “you promised me Broadway was waiting for me” and “the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day”.  But I always winced at the stereotypical image of Celtic male drunkenness at the start of the narrative and the shared insults voiced later by MacGowan and MacColl. I have not warmed further to these elements as time has passed.  So “Fairy Tale of New York” is definitely one of those cultural artefacts where its qualities change depending on the angle or time of approach.  




Fast forward again, this time to 2011, possibly the last Christmas when in the car I would automatically switch on a popular music station rather than Radio 3 or 4. By accident I caught a snippet of a song which seemed to revive some of the musical or lyrical atmosphere of “I Believe in Father Christmas” or “Fairy Tale in New York”.  Fortunately we now had the internet, so I could quickly find out the names of the artistes and could listen to the song for free to my heart’s content.

It was “When the Thames Froze” by (Tom) Smith and (Andy) Burrows, two members of 21st century bands which I had heard of but never from.

“When the Thames Froze” follows the solitary reflection of “I Believe in Father Christmas” rather than a narrative like “Fairytale in New York”. The lyrics seek a balance between the contemporary and the timeless. While the title image hints at centuries past, one striking line is clearly contemporary and political: “God damn this government, will they ever tell me where the money went?” And will they ever take some action about civic discontent and homelessness? The scene described elsewhere is less fixed: the hazards of “snow” and “cold” may not be physical. Whatever, the narrator seems reasonably confident that “my friends” and “you” will support him through difficulty.  As in “I Believe in Father Christmas”,  the ending builds tempo with cautious optimism although here all that is needed is hope and communication rather than effort : “tell everyone…let’s hope the next (year) beats the last”. Like many 21st century pop-rock songs, “When the Thames Froze” seems aware of its shaky structure, which is perhaps why familiar instrumentation touches are re-employed to build the Christmas cheer: brass band, ensemble singing.   

It is widely agreed that our celebration of Christmas has gradually become less religious and more secular. Is this change reflected in this arbitrary selection of three Christmas songs over 30 years? Yes, I think so. “I Believe in Father Christmas” does refer to “the virgin birth” and a faith in “the Israelite” although the narrator appears to be scoffing at this as “a fairy story”. Even fewer biblical references in the later two songs. The two characters in “Fairytale of New York” do not appear to be religious even though the church bells ringing on Christmas Day is an image of hope and happiness, delivered in a major key. And, 20 years later on, when the Thames freezes, perhaps not physically, the only reference to God is in the form of a curse:  “God damn”.


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A particularly memorable night at work


Many fictional Christmas stories feature a character who is on the periphery of, or a witness to, the events of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.

One such is the poem, “The Maidservant at the Inn”.  It is by Dorothy Parker, more famous for pithy observations of contemporary behaviour than for reflections of older traditions.

The scene in Parker’s poem is reminiscent of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, where the hero twice encounters Jesus: first, as a young man as he is led to exile as a galley-slave, and then again, ten years later, at his crucifixion.

Paintings of the Nativity usually include only angels, shepherds and the Magi as witnesses. In “The Census at Bethlehem” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the birth has not yet taken place, but one of these figures in the crowd might conceivably be an employee at that particular inn.

As, at this open-air belen in Arrecife, Lanzarote, might be the single female figure at the house in the foreground, since it is closest to the stable.



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A Christmas gift from Phil


During the first decade of BBC Radio 1, one secular pleasure of Advent and Christmastide  was hearing tracks from Phil Spector’s Christmas Album.

Phil Spector was a mysterious figure in the popular music of that time. Although still relatively young  he was rarely active. His music actually belonged to that period just before mine, and influenced the musicians we were listening to more than ourselves: the period of Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke and the Everly Brothers. The songs were rather twee but the sound was rich and dramatic, an idiosyncratic half-way world between 1950s musicals and 1970s pop.

Later I was struck to read Spector’s multi-tracking production techniques described, colourfully but aptly,  as “mammoth” and, even, “Wagnerian”.  Journalists identified the Phil Spector influence in artistes as apparently different as Bruce Springsteen and Abba.

Internet research reveals that the album, originally released in 1963 as  A Christmas Gift for you from Philles Records,  was reissued with the new title in 1972, which perhaps was the reason I was hearing it so regularly around that time. When CDs arrived, Phil Spector’s Christmas Album was probably the only one of my earlier vinyl collection which I replaced in the new format. Even though it would be played infrequently, it felt like an essential accessory for the season.

In the 21st century, Radio 2 has become the equivalent of 1970s Radio 1, so no surprise that a casual listen to the station during any December may catch a track. The best? To my ear, definitely still “Sleighride” by the Ronettes.


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The kings’ riding


Happy New 2015!

T.S. Eliot may well have written the best known Epiphany poem, as suggested this time last year, but another fine one is George Mackay Brown’s “A Calendar of Kings”.

Following the Brueghel tradition, the poem  shows us that the landscape which the three kings travel through is quite as dramatic and memorable as the characters themselves or their gifts or the child whom they seek to find.  As the seasons change, they encounter ice melting, spring flowers, earlier sunrises, colourful countryside shrubs and plants, fields being harvested, dark winter nights.

The poem has further  inspired visual artists and composers.



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Betjeman’s voice from Christmas past


As well as to Philip Larkin,   the George Macbeth anthology Poetry 1900 to 1965 introduced me to John Betjeman’s Christmas poem “Indoor Games Near Newbury”. At the time of my first reading, my immediate comparison would have been a handful of experiences of pre-adolescence social gatherings at school or in my own and others’ homes, albeit occasions at which all cars, never mind the chauffeured cars mentioned by Betjeman, were rarer. These days, the poem does still recall particular memories of  my own childhood home, a generously proportioned Victorian villa full of corners and passages and alcoves, which felt especially dramatic in dark winter-time, but also, suddenly, the Alberto Cavalcanti episode of the children’s party game in the brilliant film Dead of Night.

Later, I discovered “Christmas”, Betjeman’s more direct paean to the season and a poem about, to use a modern slogan, “putting Christ into Christmas”. Betjeman scans through the post-war Christmas landscape, with its once-a-year  explosions  of fellow feeling and  frantic commercial activity, and reminds us that all this is peripheral to a Christian faith which can be practised every day and any day. Michael Sheen  performed it  well in neon-lit urban streets in the BBC programme Essential Poems for Christmas.  I wonder if its sentiments are now even more old-fashioned than those of “Indoor Games Near Newbury”?



“…that God was Man in Palestine”. The Grotto of the Nativity, in the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem.



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A Christmas journey


Happy New 2014!

The most famous poem about the Epiphany is probably “The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot.  The picture it draws is so unlike that of the famous paintings of the Nativity. While the latter are usually full of rich, colourful detail, Eliot’s scene seems to be only sketched outlines, or, at most, in shades which are muted and sombre.  

The first stanza brings in a few details about the physical journey made by these Three Wise Men, the places they saw and the people they met.  It was a demanding journey and many things were exasperating. The conversational list contrasts at the end with the narrator’s reference to “the voices singing in our ears” during their night-time travelling.  Are these the angels who are calling to the shepherds? It is now almost morning.

The second stanza has some striking images which foreshadow Jesus’ adult life: the “three trees” hint towards the crucifixion at Calvary and the “dicing for pieces of silver” either to the Roman soldiers’ gambling for his clothes or to Judas’ betrayal; the “vine-leaves” and “empty wine-skins” might anticipate either his first childhood miracle at Cana or the parable reference of new wine in old wine-skins. It starts with the momentous-sounding “Then at dawn…” and ends with the famous understatement that “the place…was (you might say) satisfactory”.

The final stanza, reflecting that “All this was a long time ago…” has a tone of loss and regret which suggests that the famous journey of the title is greater for what it has changed within these men, a change which has not brought comfort and happiness, or at least not yet.

For me, Eliot’s distinctive voice suits this a little less well than “The Wasteland”. I enjoyed Saeed Jaffrey’s delivery and the TV report format used in the BBC programme Essential Poems for Christmas of a few years ago. Fred Proud also catches the mood well.


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The theatre of the Christian Christmas


Along with Easter, Christmas is one of the two times of the year when, first, our secular media follows a little more closely the practice of its more spiritual predecessors, and, second, our Christian churches are busier than usual.  Not by accident, the liturgy in churches at both these times take forms which are different from other periods of the year.

It is arguable that it is during Holy Week that the Christian church liturgy is the more dramatic: multi-voiced readings from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion, public washing of the disciples’ feet,  alfresco processions carrying the cross around local churches or landmarks.

However, Christmas Eve is the time for Mass or other services at midnight, and the four weeks of Advent  provide substantial opportunity for carol services or music concerts large and small.  Many people’s first experience of theatre, according to cliché, is appearing in a Christmas Nativity play.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is one of the most famous pieces of religious Christmas theatre, a reflective programme of readings and songs based around the narrative of Jesus Christ’s birth in the New Testament. The idea apparently originated in Cornwall in the late 19th century, although the most famous example at the chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University began just after World War One.  Each Bible reading in the sequence is allocated to a particular “actor” from the chapel, the university and the city.

Because of the distinctive structure of my own childhood Christmas Eves, I read about the Cambridge event long before I was ever able to hear any of it. Just as with other parts of Christmas radio and TV in those days, extra drama was created by the fact that the usually rigid broadcasting schedules were going to be altered. In recent years, the wonder of iPlayer allows flexibility for leisurely listening at other parts of Christmastide. The attraction of any broadcast carol concerts at this time, for me, is the opportunity to hear those carols which I did not grow up with, but which are part of other Christian Christmas traditions, such as “Adam Lay Ybounden”, “Tomorrow will be my Dancing Day”, “Cherry Tree Carol” , “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and “Sans Day Carol”.

December isn’t the best time for open-air performance, although a few years ago the BBC presented The Liverpool Nativity, an outdoor version using pop and rock songs from Liverpool musicians, which copied the format of the earlier, and rather more successful, Manchester Passion.

Occasional repeats of Channel 4’s version of the famous National Theatre production of The Mysteries would be an attractive seasonal change to terrestrial TV, although at least, happily, we can see a subtitled TV broadcast on You Tube.

Returning to my introduction, it’s a moot point whether it is Christmas or Easter which has the stronger dramatic narrative for the agnostic. The Christmas story, centred around a new-born baby, is more open to sentimentalisation; that of Easter more open to depiction of suffering and violence. Both stories can be updated with contemporary political background;  both give prominence to lesser characters who are meeting Jesus Christ; in both a story of hardship and struggle and the indifference of others ends in triumph and celebration.  


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