TPurists would say that you shouldn’t sing Christmas carols. Pagans have no right to gurgle about mangers, angels, and holy nights. Strictly speaking, those melodies belong to the faithful, not atheists like me. But on Christmas Day you will usually find me floating by the piano, impatiently waiting for the carol to begin.
My mother will play the accompaniment, my sister will sing the melody, I will find a harmony, and my brother will take the bass line. The four non-believers will gift the rest of the family with We Three Kings and none of us will care what the purists think.
Furthermore, wherever you look, music has shed its origins. Didgeridoo drones are inserted into European electronics. European opera arias become football anthems. The protest anthems are used in retirement fund announcements. The rituals are also separated from their origins. Passover began as a celebration of the pagan god Eostre. Christmas has turned into a shopping party. Cultural rituals will jump over any fences we try to put around them, so I don’t regret being a pagan Christmas carol.
In our family, singing Christmas carols is a ritual celebration of our love affair with choral music. My grandfather sang and played the organ in his local church, and his brothers and cousins loved to sing around the family upright piano. Both of my parents could sing, my sister starred in school musicals, and my brother and I sang together in youth choirs. In the run-up to Christmas, my brother and I played with a vocal quartet at Melbourne’s resounding Block Arcade. One year, a German threw 50 dollar bills at us while we sang Silent Night in his language. He was away from family and friends and our song had brought him home.
I am currently a member of three singing groups. At this time of year, we would normally be polishing our Christmas carols and pressuring our friends to buy tickets to our Christmas concerts. The French choir would be singing Joyeuse Noëlle, the chamber choir would be fa-la-la’ing in nursing homes and the quartet would send our glory to God in the highest up to the vaulted ceiling of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
But this year the music stopped. Covid-19, we learned, can be contracted by inhaling airborne particles, so the chances of creating super-spread events at choir rehearsals were horribly high. Singing together through Zoom has been nearly impossible. Fractional delays between each person’s audio stream results in a horrible cacophony. Silence and sing together, but alone, is a bad substitute. Throughout the long winter my music folders collected dust on the piano. Even now, as we move toward eliminating the virus in this country, most choral singers are too nervous to meet in person.
On Christmas Day, the singing members of my family might try to scatter us around the piano room, keeping us five feet between us. Or we could turn our backs on each other while we sing. It doesn’t sound as fun as huddling around the keyboard. But there is another reason why our singing voices can remain silent this Christmas day. We have lost our dear companion. In August of this year, Covid-19 devastated the nursing home where our mother lived. The virus that stopped the singing also ended his life.
He knew the day would come when he would not be present for the Christmas carols. Every Christmas for the past few years, she advised me to start practicing the accompaniment, so that she would be ready when she could no longer play for us. She had already traded in her baby grand piano for my old upright, hoping that this beautiful object, now installed in my living room, would draw me back to the keyboard. It didn’t work.
Was this because he didn’t want to acknowledge that she wouldn’t live forever? Or was it something more youthful, the recurrence of an old irritability? Throughout my childhood, Mom insisted that I practice the piano and clarinet every day. I loved being able to play these instruments, but I hated having to spend hours alone in the music room, jingling and playing. When, as an adult, I studied opera singing, my mother’s voice was in my head every day: “Have you practiced yet?”
Now, of course, I’m sorry I ignored your warnings about Christmas carols. My piano fingers are stiff and forgetful. My attempts to play the accompaniments are just a series of mistakes. Even my singing voice is rusty, after months without chorus rehearsals. Will this be the year our family Christmas carol tradition finally dies out? I can imagine our mother pointing to the silent piano and shaking her head in disappointment.
Maybe there is another way. My nephew plays a bad guitar. Maybe I can pass the baton on to you this year. Perhaps this family ritual can adapt and change.
I’m not ready to let it go just yet.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.