As the years go by, at a seemingly quickening pace, and, once again, Christmas approaches with a relentless inevitability, I find myself increasingly looking back to Christmases past. What an extraordinary variety of experiences they present! Sad times, happy times, fraught times, and, occasionally, magical times.
Adults like to state confidently that, “Of course, Christmas is for the children” and I suppose that the elusive magic is more likely to appear in one’s childhood.
I certainly remember, during my childhood in post-war Britain, the excitement and anticipation of unfamiliar treats at Christmas -time, all the more treasured in a world beset by rationing.
My stocking, in reality a pillow-case, always contained tangerines, still a a rare treat, a box of assorted liquorice goodies, a bar of chocolate, a colouring book with coloured pencils, a pack of coloured shapes, gummed so one could make pictures with them, and, most important of all, a jigsaw and an annual. (School Friend, Girls Crystal or the Beano.) These simple gifts kept me very happy throughout the festive day. Occasionally there was a special gift from my grandmother. I remember one in particular, a blue-eyed china doll, with blonde hair, blue bonnet and dress, and an angelic countenance. I never felt quite at ease with this image of perfection. I think I preferred my sister’s doll, which had black hair, was dressed in bright yellow, and had a malevolent gleam in her eye.
Of course, for children (and parents) Christmas also brought with it the annual ordeal of the school Nativity play. I was four or five years old when I was chosen to be an angel. Not a taxing role, not even a speaking part, I just had to stand there, and lift my wings. But, for some reason which I still cannot understand, I was filled with dread as the day approached. My mother had gone to a great deal of trouble to make me a floaty gown in cream muslin, with wings to match. I remember feeling incredibly embarrassed and full of shame for some unfathomable reason, and just stood there, wishing the earth would open up and swallow me. I suffered nightmares about it for a long time afterwards. This was my first appearance on a stage, and, considering that much of my professional life was to be spent performing in public, it was not an auspicious beginning.
I had a very different experience at a school carol concert two or three years later, when I was seven. I had volunteered to sing the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, and I diligently memorised all the verses, of which there are a considerable number. This time I was looking forward to a starring role, and felt very confident, knowing I was word-perfect. One of the teachers, a Mrs. Burcher, was to accompany me on the piano. I don’t think we rehearsed, otherwise she would have been prepared for what was to follow.
Off we went, and all went well. However, I was slightly puzzled to observe my pianist turning round to look at me expectantly after, I think, the third verse, with hands raised, obviously ready to plunge into the final triumphant chord. But I held my ground, and continued on into another verse, (and chorus, which I was generously repeating after each verse.) Again Mrs. Burcher swung round on her stool, more anxiously this time. But I had memorised all the verses, and was determined to see it through. I must admit, though, that even I was beginning to have doubts, sensing the increasing restlessness of the audience. By the end of the next verse (and chorus), my long-suffering pianist had become quite desperate. But the end was in sight, and we finished, with a sense of triumph (on my part), and huge relief on the part of Mrs Burcher. But, more importantly, I had learned one of the golden rules for any performer. Always leave your audience wanting more!
It is sadly true that Christmas, the season of peace and goodwill, is likely to generate more tension and stress than the rest of the year put together. And the weeks of preparation beforehand, now stretching into months, become ever more frantic, with so many of us determined to make this the most perfect Christmas ever, whatever the cost to our physical and mental wellbeing, not to mention our bank balances.
I blame Charles Dickens. Was it not he who, single-handed, created the fantasy of the perfect Christmas? Cosy family gatherings, Scrooge metamorphosing into the lovable philanthropist, goodwill to all men! His cry of “Would that Christmas lasted the whole year through!” had obviously not been thought through very carefully.
Can you imagine what that would mean? Crime rates would soar, domestic violence would erupt throughout the land, obesity would rise even more dramatically than at present, there would be an epidemic of divorce, and loneliness would spread inexorably through the population. Not to mention the explosion of debt!
I believe that the more desperately we strive to achieve the perfect Christmas, the more likely we are to fail. It is inevitable. We musicians know, from bitter experience, that, when we strive for perfection in our performing, we are doomed to failure. We hopefully learn the hard lesson that, while aiming for excellence is motivating and truly productive, striving for perfection is debilitating and counter-productive.
Claudio Arrau used to give his students the wise advice: “Prepare thoroughly, then let it go, and don’t worry!” Would that we could follow this sound advice when the first strains of Jingle bells assail our ears! If we can, we may make the wonderful discovery that we have allowed a glimpse of the magic of Christmas to creep in, taking us by surprise, when we least expect it. That is the way of magic.
I remember one memorable occasion, a few years ago, when I was performing in a Victorian Christmas celebration in words and music. When our little group of two actors and two musicians arrived at the festival venue, which was just outside Swansea, we found that, instead of the auditorium being set out in rows, it was filled with small round tables, on each of which sat a festive arrangement of leaves and berries, complete with candle.
About halfway through our programme, after a particularly poignant reading from the actors, my flautist fellow-musician and I began to play, very softly, that most beautiful of carols, It came upon the Midnight Clear. Almost immediately we were joined by wonderful Welsh voices, singing quietly in the flickering candle-light, with exquisite and harmonious descant. As the music faded away, there was a hushed silence. Then we performers on stage, actors and musicians, stood and applauded our audience! We had, indeed, experienced magic.
Warmest Greetings to All, from La and Leo.