The ancient choir

King’s College (Cambridge) has a glorious choir, comprised of 16 boys aged 7-13 and 10 adults. It was founded in — get ready — 1441 by King Henry VI of England. It’s famous for its “Nine Lessons and Carols,” performed and broadcast throughout the world on Christmas Eve via the BBC. The Lessons have been broadcast annually since 1928 with one exception (1930) via radio and televised since 1954.

Here the choir sings a lively “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” The song is no spring chicken either; it was first mentioned in a book of dances published in 1589. It was first published with the current lyrics in 1924.

Christmas readings

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has a daily radio show called “As It Happens.” During the Christmas season its hosts have read various seasonal stories during part of the 90-minute program for years and years. All of them are wonderful performances. Here are links to a few:

“The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry’s classic short story read by the show’s long-time host Alan Maitland.

“The Shepherd,” Frederick Forsyth’s ghost story about an RAF pilot whose plane has suffered a catastrophic electrical failure while flying from a base in Germany across the Channel to England in 1957. Also read by Maitland, it always appears during the last show before Christmas.

“Who Has Seen the Wind,” an excerpt from W.O. Mitchell’s novel of Depression-era Saskatchewan.

“Bone Button Borscht,” a retelling of the folk tale “Stone Soup” in a Jewish context by Toronto author Aubrey Davis. It’s read by another long-time host, Barbara Budd.

“To Everything There is a Season,” Alistair MacLeod’s Cape Breton Christmas tale.

Shortest night of the year

To celebrate the Winter Solstice, let’s hear a spectacular piano version of Vivaldi’s “Winter,” from his “Four Seasons” concertos. Vivaldi wrote them circa 1717 and published sonnets to accompany them in order to explain what he was trying to say about each season. This was one of the first and certainly the most detailed of early examples of program music, music with a narrative element.

Stille Nacht

From a 1994 TV special entitled Aaron Neville’s Christmas in New Orleans, here’s “Silent Night”. Neville and Linda Ronstadt performed several glorious duets on her 1989 album “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind”, and they reunited here on this show from his hometown.

From Wikipedia:

The song was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire on the Salzach river in present-day Austria.[1] A young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, had come to Oberndorf the year before. He had written the lyrics of the song “Stille Nacht” in 1816 at Mariapfarr, the hometown of his father in the Salzburg Lungau region, where Joseph had worked as a co-adjutor.

The melody was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf. Before Christmas Eve, Mohr brought the words to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the Christmas Eve mass, after river flooding had damaged the church organ. It is unknown what inspired Mohr to write the lyrics, or what prompted him to create a new carol.

Bing Crosby’s version has sold some 30 million copies, making it the third best-selling single record of all time behind Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana “Candle in the Wind/Something About the Way You Look Tonight.”

Talking Snowmen?

Back in 1987 The Eurythmics sang a version of “Winter Wonderland” which was played so frequently in the five years ending in 2007 that ASCAP claimed it topped all holiday songs for that period written by one of its members.

The song was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith and first recorded by a man named Richard Himber later that year. It’s been recorded by at least 200 artists in the 85 years since.

Local girl sings Christmas

Here’s a find: what Rolling Stone considers 40 Essential Holiday Albums. The author is obviously wrong. He did not include Bette Midler’s 2011 album “Cool Yule”. Here’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” yet another Irving Berlin composition. It was written in 1937 for the musical “On the Avenue,” starring Dick Powell and Alice Faye.

Not every Christmas song is secular

Here’s a case in point. “Angels We Have Heard on High” is performed here by a cover band called “Foxes and Fossils.” They have three young ladies who sing exquisite harmony, and it’s shown to their advantage with this song.

The song itself is a loose translation of a French song, “Les Anges dans nos campagnes,” with English lyrics by James Chadwick, a Roman Catholic priest and Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle in the 19th century.

Look up the Foxes and Fossils channel on YouTube. You won’t regret it.