Three Christmas carols you may not have heard before

As a sometime treble and adult chorister, music plays a big part in the spirit of Christmas. However, it’s possible to get tired of the same repertoire being used over and over again. Yes, I know Rutter’s a genius, but – dare I say it? – a lot of his work is pretty tedious and formulaic, mass-produced for choirs of average ability to churn out with their eyes closed.

So I thought I’d present my three favourite Christmas carols for no particular reason other than I love them and you may not have heard them before.

1. O Adonai by Roderick Williams

Oh, how I love Roderick Williams. I first came across him when our choir was asked to sing with Paco Peña in a performance of his Requiem for the Earth. And Roderick sang the brief baritone solo that forms part of one of the movements. So I was pleased to learn that he’s a composer too.

His O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel was on a CD that a friend lent me and it’s the standout track of that compilation. He creates an enormous soundscape from a simple element, sung by a solo soprano, that builds to incorporate the entire choir and then fades away into nothingness. I imagine it’s fantastically hard to sing well.

You can hear it here.

2. Away in a Manger by Sir John Tavener

We all know Away in a Manger. David Willcocks wrote a wonderful arrangement with a lovely lyrical tenor line, but most often we end up singing it in unison as a congregation hymn. So it’s a bit surprising that John Tavener came across the words long before he came across the music. When he did finally hear the music, he felt that it was wrong; it didn’t fit the words properly.

Hence his version, which is uniquely Tavener. It turns its three verses into something that manages to be completely timeless and beautiful. You’ll never want to go back to the other versions again.

You can hear it here.

3. What Sweeter Music by John Rutter

Having slammed Rutter in my introduction, I’ll forgive him for What Sweeter Music. Written for King’s, it is starting to find its way into the modern repertoire. It’s far from ‘classic Rutter’. It’s a lot harder, to begin with, and it develops a more complex set of harmonies rather than sticking to one throughout.

Of the three in my list, you may have heard this one before (I’d say “stop me” except this is the end of the list in any case).

You can hear it here.

Atheism at Christmas time

This summer, I attended the funeral of my father. My father was, in the main, a good man. But he did some things that he wouldn’t have been proud of. At his funeral, I spoke for ten minutes about the highlights of his life. Was it a true representation of his life? Was it fair? For the purposes of a funeral, of course it was. If you were trying to write a balanced biography, perhaps it wouldn’t.

But it would have been easy for someone at his funeral – after all, they all knew him – to stand up and mention one of the more fruitier parts of his life. And it would have been thoroughly appalling to have done so. Luckily, those present had sufficient decorum and respected the sensibilities of those present.

Or let’s consider a starker example. Would anyone consider it kind, or a good idea, to walk into a pub full of Manchester United fans during a local derby in which City are winning 2-0 to tell them how poorly their team is performing and how much better City are?

Christmas is a challenging time for atheists, as they find themselves face to face with faith. While the vast majority conduct themselves with decorum, some feel obliged to seek refuge from their own unhappiness by bringing others down to their level. So they might seek to pour scorn on elements of the Christmas story that strike them as inconsistent. Or to deride faith itself in cruel and mocking terms. To those who are tempted to behave in such a way, imagine the losing football supporter or the grieving child at a parent’s funeral, and consider whether you would like to be on the receiving end of such unkind behaviour.

At the Church of the Dead Dad, we do not subscribe to the idea that only through the church can you find morality. So at Christmas time, I call upon atheists everywhere to show that you can find ethics in atheism as well, and to keep any unkind opinions about Christianity or faith firmly under wraps.

Thought for the day, “Advent”, 12 December 2011

Here is the text for my forthcoming ‘Thought for the day’, to be broadcast on Monday 12 December on the subject of “Advent”.


Advent is for many a joyous time. It brings the promise of Christmas, a wonderful time of giving and receiving presents and enjoying some time at home with your family. It may bring thick blankets of snow, that slow the impossibly rapid pace of modern life to a complete standstill, while also dulling its noise and bustle. The long winter nights mean time spent indoors huddled together next to a warm fire, enjoying the merry twinkling lights of a Christmas tree. It is a month-long extravaganza of mince pies, mulled wine, Christmas carols and parties.

That’s all peripheral to Advent’s true purpose, which is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, in a stable faraway, some 2,000 years ago. Through Christ we were all saved.

But there’s a dark side to Advent. Long nights mean short days, and the inevitable dark journeys to and from work and the bleakness of seasonal affective disorder. There are some who cannot afford to keep their houses warm, or even to buy a Christmas tree. Snow means tragic accidents on the roads, delays in gritting streets and pavements and cancelled public transport. The colder weather causes leaves to shrivel up and die. And, while we can enjoy time with our families, it necessarily reminds us of those – such as my own father – who are not here to enjoy Christmas with us this year.

When you have lost your father, you can seek solace in the fact that – like Jesus in the manger – your father is in Heaven on Christmas Day. And, finally, it may be your turn to get the best bits of the turkey.