Each year the same thing happens. Each year we’re expected to suspend for a month the exercise of sound musical judgment as we’re engulfed, willingly or otherwise, in a deluge of Christmas Music. All of a sudden, banality in various guises becomes completely acceptable. Every church in the land that hasn’t descended to the satanic realms of happy-clappy mass hysteria and which has a half-decent choir offers its own version of King’s College’s Nine Lessons and Carols in cosy, twinkly, feelgood candlelight, pretending that all is well in the world. All the major concert halls in every large city offer Christmas concerts of various hues, swelling the coffers of entrepreneurs like Raymond Gubbay. Local choral societies give their inevitable Messiahs, capable or not. And all around the country in our nation’s primary schools mums burst into tears at the sight of their precious ones draped in tea towels and singing ‘Little Donkey’ at the Nativity play. (Well might they cry, for they’re witnessing a despicable act of attempted religious indoctrination that in a civilised country like France is probably illegal.)
Piped music in the shopping mall or the pub, always an annoyance, achieves year-long highs on the irritation scale. It’s hard to avoid ‘Jingle Bells’ or ‘O Come, all ye faithful’ sung incessantly by a crooner over a wobbly-voiced choir in an American accent, or Slade belting out that relentlessly, tiresomely upbeat number ‘Merry Christmas’. Meanwhile, we critics receive the usual crop of press releases from record companies extolling the ‘remarkable talents’ of some choirboy or other who, despite his gifts, manages to lead an ordinary life skateboarding and playing footy with his mates. (How amazing is that?) Often the talents turn out to be not very remarkable at all, and the programmes are predictable and saccharine. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing 24/7 at this time of year, and how I wish they’d just shut up and fly away.
But I was not always such a musical Scrooge. There was a time — admittedly, when my tastes were less well informed than now and religious conviction had not yet deserted me — when Christmas and its rituals seemed like an oasis, its music a welcome solace. For this Scrooge used to be a Tiny Tim, deeply grateful for any seasonal musical morsel upon which he could feast, either as listener or highly incompetent participant. Life was difficult. The family, a large one, lived in cramped conditions on a north London council estate, in something like poverty and in constant terror of a violently alcoholic father. When Christmas came around, we knew that the alcohol intake was likely to be more extreme than usual and that the violence, psychological or physical, was likely to be particularly gruesome. Nevertheless my heroic mother year after year insisted on giving us as much of a Christmas as she could, always cooking more or less through the night and managing to put on what seemed to be the most handsome spread come the day itself. We’d all hope that father’s pre-lunch inebriation would be so acute that when he eventually returned from the Old Sergeant, legless and smelling pungently, he would pass the nasty stage quickly and sink into unconsciousness. (Actually, there was always a secret hope voiced among us siblings that one day he’d never return at all.) On those occasions we could have our fun, often at his unknowing expense.
But on other occasions, when he hadn’t had quite enough, things would turn ugly. The usual line was that my mother was a ‘Jezebel’ — a rather quaint term, I remember thinking at the time — and had betrayed him by having affairs with all and sundry. My grammar school music teacher was perhaps the most absurd alleged object of her affections. In fact, my mother was absurdly loyal, to the point of masochism. Sometimes one or other of us children might be victimised, too, for some imagined misdemeanour, for not wanting to engage in conversation about mother’s alleged infidelities, or simply for being in the way. Often, after torrents of abuse, with the family sitting white-faced around the table, there would be an ironic full cadence, uttered slowly and bitterly in his slurred East End accent: ‘’eppy Chrishmash everybody.’ And joy to the world, I’d add in silently defiant rejoinder.
Looking back from this distance, it’s clear now that my father’s alcoholism and his general inability to trust or love anyone must have been deeply rooted in something that happened in his own life. I still find it impossible, however, to forgive the monster that he became, perhaps thereby being slightly monstrous in my own right. But to go from such a world to the reassuring certainty of faith, to be able to sing those cosy, sentimental carols to my heart’s content in the little local church, to graduate in my teens to the Messiahs and Christmas Oratorios offered by the local choral society, even to go carol singing on the local streets, was to escape if only for a little while a sort of hell. And if the music itself was not always what today would please my oh so refined and privileged palette, it at least played a crucial role in leading me to that which spiritually nourishes and intellectually stimulates me now.
Who am I, therefore, to act the grumpy old man and despise the sentimentality of Christmas? Should I not permit myself to suspend my cynicism, to go ungrudgingly out into the world, as Scrooge did, a new man, and embrace if not with joy then with open-hearted tolerance the carol singers, the shoddy Messiahs, the Raymond Gubbay concerts, the piping boy treble’s hackneyed new CD, even the dulcet tones of Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas’ wafting through the shopping mall on air-conditioned breeze? No, I think not. Childhood was then, and this is now, and sensibilities so carefully developed over the years must needs be preserved, lest I compromise my ability to discriminate, an ability that is supposed to earn me my living. Thus bah and humbug, say I.