There is something transcendent and joyous about singing with other people. You raise your voice with theirs. The sound swells around you, creating something immense and immersive and generative. You become not the song but the act of singing. Sometimes, usually the unplanned times, when you’re singing just for each other and not for an audience, the music becomes a shared joy. You look into the faces of the other singers as you push your voice into the air with theirs and something builds above you and around you and within you. You are connected to the music and each other in a way that demands that you give more of yourself, swell the sound, feed the wonderful thing that is in the air around you, until there is nothing but the song and the singers in an expanding bubble of music.. When it end and you come back to yourself, in the silence that follows, you bring with you a renewed sense of possibility that lingers like woodsmoke in your memory.
I grew up associating singing with celebration and particularly with Christmas. I was raised a Catholic and, odd as it seems to me now, I became a choirboy. I was a soprano, gifted with more enthusiasm than skill, but when, up above the congregation, at the back of the church, I reached for those high notes and pushed them up to the vaulted ceiling, it felt like flying.
Midnight Mass was the highlight of my singing year. The church would be so full that people would be standing shoulder to shoulder at the back. I remember the smell of cold weather, wet wool, tobacco, incense, wood polish and a top note of recently consumed alcohol. At Midnight Mass, we sang Carols not Hyms. The choir would lead with the delicate beauty of ‘Silent Night’, pure high notes, piercing the air like small bells and making everyone remember simpler, quieter times. Then we’d pick up the tempo with ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ and ‘We Three Kings‘ and‘Hark! The Herald Angel Sings’, carols everyone could warm up with. We’d end the Mass and greet Christmas Day with ‘Oh, Come All Ye Faithful‘ which was belted out with the energy of a football crowd supporting a winning team.
I’m not a Catholic any more but I remember those Midnight Masses as a something special. They were a communal celebration. They meant something a little different to each person there, but we were all there together, raising our voices to create a swell of happiness in the cold dark night.
I’m not a soprano anymore. When my voice first broke, it felt as if my wings had been ripped off. I’d reach for notes and wouldn’t just fail to fly, I’d fall, flapping and croaking like something maimed. Carols helped me find my new voice, with turned out to be bass at ease and a slightly fragile tenor at a stretch. I was no longer a choirboy but, at Christmas time I’d go out with other people from my school and we’d knock on doors and sing a carol or two, raising money for charity. Sometimes we’d go to what we then called, old folks homes, and sing for them. It wasn’t the old magic of Midnight Mass but it was a celebration.
Then I discovered the Christmas Folk Concert. I grew up on Merseyside, home to a folk band called The Spinners. Their Christmas concerts became an annual tradition. We’d go to the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool and sing along with them for a couple of hours. One of my favourite parts of their performance was ‘The Kids Carols’ parody carols that we all sang once upon a time. They were irreverent and joyful and they still make me smile.
The concert would alway end with the ‘Shalom Medley’ which was wonderful to sing along with. Why a Hebrew song to close a Christmas concert? Listen to the intro and find out.
Today, I think the best folks carol concerts are given by Kate Rusby a folk singer from Pennistone, a part of Yorkshire famous for singing carols in the pubs at Christmas.
In 2018, the first year we were back in England, my wife took me to Kate Rusby’s Christmas concert at the Forum in Bath. Kate sang lots of fun Christmas carols and we all sang along. What stuck with me most was a new song from her called ‘Let The Bells Ring’. She wrote it after meeting with some Cornish folks who told her that it was their tradition to go down to the sea to welcome in the New Year. Her song imagines this beautifully. For me, it speaks to a more ancient tradition than Christmas. One where we stand together in the dark at the end of a year, let go of its pains and sorrows, face towards the rising son and open ourselves to the hope of a new start.