Nine Lessons & Carols

‘The air was dry with summer heat, and smoke was on the yellow moon…’ ~John Wheeler

The temperature gauge is swooping up to the century as we gallop into the third week of December. It’s a far cry from last year’s somewhat chillier Christmas in northern Europe. As I sat on the balcony early this morning, sipping tea and enjoying the cool air before the heat kicked in, I heard my first magpie warbling among the rooftops. And last night, at our local church, the carol service gave me my first touch of Christmas, the candlelight and haunting music sending shivers of anticipation up my arms.

Since the kids were in primary school, I have particularly loved this special Christmas service. Nine bible readings follow the story from the garden of Eden to Bethlehem, these short stories wreathed with glorious, spine-tingling Christmas music, sung by the resident choir and congregation.

It’s a tradition that began in the south west of England in the late 19th century. Previously, carol singers would traipse through the snow from house to house, singing secular Christmas songs.  When the Victorians published a Christmas hymnal in 1895, the frost-bitten carol singers moved indoors with relief to the marginally warmer environs of the choir stalls, up beside the altar.

In 2001 we attended our first such service in a cosy village church in Kent, where two of our children performed in the school choir. It was an ambitious project courtesy of the enthusiastic music teacher at their primary school. Somehow, Mrs. Cooke inspired these kids, aged eight to eleven, to sing joyfully in Latin, German and old English. We were rapt.

Yesterday, after a quick dinner, we followed the sound of the bells, to find a throng of people already filling the pews at St. Cuthbert’s, each person carrying a small, battery-operated candle. As the light faded, the candles winked in an array of rainbow colours, while real wax candles burned from sconces on every pillar.

As I glanced around the church, it was interesting to note the cultural variety amongst the congregation: a wonderful microcosm of the multi-cultural landscape of Australia, that was once so predominantly British. And, as the vicar noted in her opening remarks, all these different nationalities and races are ‘united through our faith in Christ.’

This cultural potpourri was also reflected in the choice of songs. While the congregation trilled enthusiastically through all the old favourites (Away in a Manger, Once in Royal David’s City, O Come All Ye Faithful’), the choir branched out into Christmas favourites in a variety of languages: Spanish, Slavic, French, German and Latin, a negro spiritual, and  two beautiful Australian carols from the 1940s.

Later, the choirmaster told me the tale of a visiting Russian conductor, a short grumpy bloke who never smiled. He was nonetheless eager to perform music that would be more relevant to an Australian Christmas than those carolling of deep mid-winter, holly and driven snow. He discovered a staff writer, John Wheeler, in the depths of the ABC who had written five Christmas poems with an Australian setting. This feisty, somewhat dictatorial Russian insisted that Wheeler team up with ABC’s music director, W.G. James, who promptly set the poems to music for an SATB choir (an acronym for soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices).

So today, instead of wintry songs about chestnuts and open fires, ice, snow and sleigh bells, we have a series of carols with references to the southern hemisphere in December. Or, as Julian Dennison and Ronan Keating remind us in ‘Summer Wonderland’ mozzie spray, sunburn and cricket bats are far more relevant to a southern hemisphere Christmas than snowmen.

‘The north wind is tossing the leaves, the red dust is over the town; the sparrows are under the eaves, and the grass in the paddocks is brown…’ ~John Wheeler

In my childhood, department stores still cocooned Father Christmas in huge black boots and a woolly red suit and sprayed fake snow on the windows, while elevator muzak consisted largely of American Christmas songs. Today, we no longer feel obliged to kowtow to northern hemisphere traditions. Why overheat the house cooking turkey and Christmas pudding in 40 degrees, when its the season for fresh prawns and salad. And there’s no need to wrap ourselves coats and scarves for a postprandial walk on the beach at the end of a long boozy Christmas lunch – a wonderful concept that I fully intend to make a family tradition.

Like that jolly Air New Zealand version of ‘Winter Wonderland,’ many antipodean Christmas songs since John Wheeler’s worthy offerings. Yet I suspect that his five carols were the first public acknowledgement that Australians weren’t simply English migrants but had established an independent culture in a completely different clime to their origins in northern Europe. Now most of us know the song about Santa using six white kangaroos to pull his sleigh, and that catchy Twelve Days of Christmas full of galahs, kangaroos and an emu up a gum tree. And of course, there’s Tim Minchin’s ‘White Wine in the Sun’ which has become a firm favourite.

And yet, the best reminder that I am back in the land of water restrictions and suffocating summer heat is not the north wind tossing the leaves – although it is currently flinging dust and gum leaves furiously across the state – but the sign above the loo that reads ‘in this land of surf and sun, we don’t flush for number one!’

Have a very merry Christmas!

*With thanks to Google images for the colourful Christmas pics!

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