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We all have our personal Christmas soundtrack. Jangly Christmassy music starts after Halloween in the shops and most of us tune it out immediately. And then, among the glitter and the glee, we hear a song that hits us straight in the heart or the soul or wherever it is we cherish our memories. It is from our personal playlist; our Christmas CV, containing our adventures, our good and bad times, and our memories of Christmas past.
Christmas is the only time when most of us listen to choral music, the glorious old hymns that soar with the power and harmony of raised voices. We love The Holly and the Ivy and God Rest You Merry Gentlemen especially when sung so rousingly by Annie Lennox and Steeleye Span’s Gaudete; the eerie voice of Maddy Prior getting closer and drifting away again, as if a party of ghostly monks had passed by.
I once taught Maddy N17 by The Saw Doctors and that is another story, but you will find that your English Folkies do Christmas very well, from The Albion Band to Jethro Tull with the frankly pagan Solstice Bells.
I know Christmas has started when I hear the piano on Driving Home for Christmas by Chris Rea and straight away I am transported to a great snowy motorway in England in the 1980s, heading towards the ferry and music playing on Terry Wogan’s show. “I can’t wait to see those faces.” Me too, Chris.
While Slade and Wizard and Mariah Carey are all very well in their own way, eventually we have to seek out our own favourites. So every Christmas I pull out an album called Drive The Cold Winter Away.
It is the only acoustic album The Horslips ever recorded and it came from a band most of us fondly remember as a crowd of hairy Glam Rock Folkies bringing loud music to small halls in rural Ireland.
It is astonishingly good and evokes a medieval world when Christmas was a light in the darkness of frozen forests.
The music is from a time before electricity and orchestras and strangely pagan, although ostensibly Christian. This world is close to the earth and nature and it is old. Many of the same tracks can be found on If on a Winter’s Night by Sting. These are the songs of mummers and carolers when Christmas was not about shopping.
Sting also has a fabulous song from a poem by Robert Louis Stephenson about a ship trapped in a bay and the desperate measures the crew are taking to keep away from the rocks, while Christmas is celebrated in a cottage on the hill overlooking them. It turns out that the narrator was born in that house and his folks are inside, talking of the son who went to sea, and he feels a “wicked fool” to be risking his life on “Blessed Christmas Day”.
Many years after Robert Louis Stephenson’s ne’er-do-well yearned for home, Frank Sinatra sang “I’ll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me,” and of course you know he won’t make it.
You feel that he is addressing a barman, probably the same one in the sublime One For My Baby in a club in Havana in the old days, surrounded by hard men and harder women. The sounds and smells evoke an exile’s Christmas. It is not an Irish exile – an exile of necessity – but the exile of a wild spirit. For Christmas gets to even the toughest at some stage, especially if they have had a few drinks.
There is plenty of an Irish exile in Fairytale of New York as well as hilarity, sadness and gaiety, and nostalgia.
Whenever I hear the elegant piano introduction I remember when it first came out and was played everywhere in Galway. I left two friends of mine – one a brilliant medical student and the other a blossoming sculptor – in Neachtain’s bar in Galway and I travelled through the night to Nenagh and walked into The Well pub where Shane McGowan was standing merrily at the bar.
If I had met Michael Jackson I would not have been more surprised, not knowing that Shane had just moved to Tipperary.
I love that song and I always think of Mark and Debbie, who are no longer with us, and Neachtains’s in the old days and give thanks for memories of happy days and wild Christmas nights.