The Christmas Collection
Read by Peter Jeffrey, John Moffatt, David Timson, Susan Engel, Simon Harris, Liza Ross & Benjamin Soames
Christmas brings out the best and the worst in us, as can be seen in this evocative anthology. Among what Thomas Love Peacock calls the ‘many poetical charms in the heraldings of Christmas’ there are eulogies by saints and diatribes from curmudgeons. Here, Christmas is expounded by divines, sung by rustics, deplored by philosophers and made mystical in stories. This collection includes complete versions of old favourites and new discoveries: a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, an account of Christmas under the Puritans, a first, poverty-stricken Christmas in turn-of-the-century New York and a Mummers’ play. Adding the final touch is the music: from traditional Christmas carols and Corelli to Benjamin Britten. On this recording, Christmas past brings alive Christmas present.
Running Time: 2 h 31 m
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ISBN: 978-962-634-149-0 Digital ISBN: 978-962-954-501-7 Cat. no.: NA214912 CD RRP: $17.98 USD Download size: 37 MB
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There is a sure way to get into the Christmas spirit. Listen to readings about Christmas, from a recipe dating back to 1394 to stories about 20th century Christmas in wartime and all those years in-between. The Christmas Collection is read in fine readings by seven actors, known to us from the stage and film as well as from behind the microphone. There are two CDs in this collection. They offer us an insight into the past, yet confirm that the Christmas season has not really changed. By dividing the readings into Advent, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Curmudgeonly Christmases, Partying, and offerings of Food for Thought, we can hear echoes from the past reverberating in our own time. The Partying segment on CD 2 consists of a Christmas Mummers’ Play as celebrated in Leicestershire in 1863. This is not unlike mummers plays performed in Newfoundland to this day. The origin in the New World dates back to the 1600s when they were brought there by immigrants from England and later Ireland. The spirit of Christmas is positively emphasized through musical interludes that not only introduce each section, but are also brought in just before several readings within the six sections. They are charmingly complementary to the readings and are from Naxos recordings that feature carols, and music by Corelli, Britten, Bach and others. There are two items that were not read in quite the manner one expects. Track 13 on CD 1, A Visit from St. Nicholas, which we know here as The Night Before Christmas, does not sound right with an English accent. This is not the fault of David Timson, who otherwise does some wonderful readings in this collection. It’s just that we are used to a North American accent. The other item that failed to totally capture my imagination is Track 1 on this CD, A Recipe for Christmas Pastry: Anon. 1394. The recipe is great and offers a look at a distant Christmas past. Susan Engel, however, is not totally convincing in her Middle English pronunciation. During the Middle English period the ’e’ at the end of a world was not pronounced as we tend to do now, as a double-e (deep), but more like an ’e’ in let. She also pronounces ’ye’ as ’eye’, rather than ’the’, for what looked like the letter ’y’ in Middle English was actually the letter representing the ’th’ sound. We somehow have forgotten this. So, if you see a shop called ’Ye Old Shoppe’, do not say ’Yee old shoppee’, but ’The old shoppe’ (remember ’e’ as in let). But enough of my curmudgeonly ways. This is a great collection to put on as an entertainment at Christmas for oneself as well as guests, especially the young ones. It will keep them occupied while one is busy preparing the Christmas feast. This audio CD is far more entertaining and revealing of what Christmas is and was about than some television program. One cannot list all the personalities who are represented in this Christmas anthology. Here a just a few: William Shakespeare, Robert Herrick, Nicholas Breton, John Betjeman, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Anderson and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Alidë Kohlhaas, Lancette Arts Journal
Christmas brings out the best and the worst in us. Certainly there can be no richer seam to mine for an anthology. Among what Thomas Love Peacock calls the ‘many poetical charms in the heraldings of Christmas’ there are eulogies by saints and diatribes from curmudgeons. This collection offers Christmas expounded by divines, sung by rustics, deplored by philosophers, made mystical in stories and summed up in a line by Elizabeth Jennings: ‘The hush, the star, the baby, people being kind again’.
It includes complete versions of such old favourites as The Little Match Girl, The Night Before Christmas, Ring Out, Wild Bells and Christmas Day in the Workhouse, but also much that will, I hope, be unfamiliar. It moves from the simple pleasures observed by John Clare (‘And children, ‘tween their parents’ knees, / Sing scraps of carols o’er by heart’) to the miseries endured by Kilvert (‘I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins’).
tree, the yule
and of course
It tells of how the ‘superstitious time of the Nativity’ was made a political pawn in the time of John Evelyn and of dissenters over-indulging themselves with ‘plum porridge’; of the shortages and contrivances of Christmas on the Home Front, and the wartime truce during which German and British forces exchanged carols and cigarettes.
There is, inevitably, much mention of food, as befits the day which C. Day Lewis calls ‘a coral island in time where we land and eat our lotus’. There are ancient feasts and traditional delights; recipes for boar’s head, ‘rare mince pies’, ‘well-spic’d hippocras’ and how to pull blazing raisins from the snapdragon – and how to cook possum.
Themes recur. The christmas tree – ‘a tree of fable, a phoenix in evergreen’. The yule log, part of which must be kept to tend the Christmas log next year in order to keep the devil away. Drink, most notably Mr Pickwick’s ‘mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look and a jolly sound that was perfectly irresistible’. And of course presents: explorations of the nature of giving from Martial (‘Gifts are like hooks…’), Betjemen’s ‘sweet and silly Christmas things, / Bath salts and inexpensive scent / And hideously ties so kindly meant’ and the mysterious green omnibus in G.K. Chesterton’s haunting tale of The Shop of Ghosts.
The Three Wise Men (‘in their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones’) haunt poets (that was Yeats) and divines alike – very alike indeed in the case of Launcelot Andrewes’ 1622 sermon on their advent, the words of which, it was a shock to realise, would be borrowed almost syllable for syllable by T.S. Elliot: ‘A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in winter. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, “the very dead of winter”.’
Christmas has its horrors as well as its joys. Edmond Gosse’s father savagely rakes the plum pudding secretly made by the servants into the ashes of the fire; Southey deplores the social mobility that, he feels sure, will see the end of all the old Christmas customs within a generation.
He was of course wrong. The bulk of this anthology is a celebration of the greatest festival of the year, part pagan, part Christian, ambitiously generous, wholly human. But no one summed it up better than Nicholas Breton in his 1626 Fantastickes. ‘I hold a memory of Heaven’s Love, and the world’s peace, the mirth of the honest, and the meeting of the friendly.’
I’ve also included a complete Mummers’ play in memory of the primary school at East Kennet, Wiltshire where an inspired headmistress used to lay one on annually to the great delight of the children and parents alike: Mrs Tomlin, the whole anthology is dedicated to you as a tribute to those glorious annual Christmases – and the splendid education – you gave so many children for so many years.
Notes by Christina Hardyment