Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Drunk in a Midnight Choir

“Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free” Leonard Cohen

As a devout young choir girl (head chorister no less), I used to take umbrage at the hoards of ‘Christmas Brigade’ punters who would rock up at midnight mass having not seen the inside a church all year except possibly for weddings, Christenings and funerals. It seemed unfair that I should be there every Sunday doing my bit while they just got to saunter in for the fun part once a year. Little did I imagine that one day it would be me rolling drunkenly into the back pew for a sing-song on Christmas Eve.

But why would a confirmed agnostic/pantheist indulge in such institutional religious rites? A sentimental attachment to old times is partly to blame - my spiritual life may no longer be tied to the church, but I still find immense comfort in the traditions and surroundings that were such a big part of my childhood and early adulthood.

The other main attraction is the music. Having been trained and immersed in it for so many years, my singing voice comes alive to sacred music, particularly the good old Christmas carol. My heart does not belong to Christmas until I have belted out the soaring descant to Oh Come all Ye Faithful by candlelight. The past few years I have been exercising my lungs on Christmas Eve at our local church, St George’s in Kemp Town, where I get an extra thrill from knowing that some of my favourite performers have also sung there. But it’s not just about sentiment and singing.

Christianity may have appropriated many of its festive traditions from the Pagans and Romans, but Christmas is Christmas now (not Yuletide or Saturnalia) and there’s no getting away from it. So whether you believe in Jesus or not, it only seems fitting to pay one's respects to the tradition that gives us that precious time off work to argue with family, max out our credit cards and over-indulge on rich food and booze.

Joking aside, I may not be religious but I am a sucker for tradition and ritual and there’s nothing like candlelit mass for conjuring ceremonial magic and summoning the festive spirit (figuratively speaking of course). So call me a hypocrite, but come Christmas Eve I’ll be there giving it all I’ve got in my once a year pseudo-spiritual seasonal devotional. And pious choir girls, please don’t hate me for it.


Nothing to do with midnight mass but suitably festive, the above video is from this year's Wainwright/McGarrigle family Christmas show, 'A Not So Silent Christmas' at the Royal Albert Hall. I recommend the CD or DVD of the occasion as excellent festive listening and have also picked out a few other favourite alternative Christmas albums for fellow music lovers. Enjoy...

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully put, sums up how I feel too - I went to an anaemic CofE school which drained the life out of any ecclesiastical fervor I might have otherwise felt, but I do still like a good singalong to a hymn or two. Bit hypocritical to take Lucas to church but I do mourn the fact that he won't know the tunes and feel the delicious shiver of a high church service, and you're right, lots of pagan traditions still visible so maybe it's justifiable.

    Actually a return to those roots and a more realistic approach could be the saviour of the Church, but I guess that's missing the point ...


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