In the run up to Christmas, the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency will be posting an entry from one of our authors each day, offering anything from writing tips and their inspiration, to Christmas memories and their wishes for the year to come.
C. J. DAUGHERTY
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing Incorrectly
I grew up in the US and, until 2000, I’d spent every Christmas of my life there. That year, I moved to Britain (ostensibly for two years but here I still am so, ho-ho. Plans. AmIright?).
My first British Christmas was spent with kindly friends who took me in, stuffed me with delicious food and wine and spared me any singing. Therefore, it wasn’t until my second Christmas in Britain that I learned you sing all the carols wrong.
First I should mention, I love singing. I sang in choir as a child and used to dream of having my own band. I decided to become a writer instead so there went that always quite tenuous dream.
But I still love to sing. And Christmas songs are a thing with me. I start humming “Jingle Bell Rock” weeks before any trees are actually trimmed. In New Orleans, where I lived before moving to Britain, I looked forward to the annual candle-light carolling in the French Quarter with the breathless anticipation of a child awaiting Santa Claus’ tumble through the chimney.
So when my local church in London put up flyers about candle-light Christmas carolling I put the date in my calendar. I couldn’t wait.
On the appointed night I arrived early, and happily collected my candle at the door. I was very impressed to see a trumpeter or two in addition to the organ player.
Here in England, I thought, they do it right.
The song list looked pleasingly familiar. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Oh Little Town of Bethlehem along with Away in a Manger. Just perfect.
The vicar called for us to rise for the first song, the music began and…
It was the wrong tune.
I stood there, mouth open comically but no sound coming out, staring at my song sheet.
The lyrics were mostly the same but the tune –the all-important hummable tune – it was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Everyone around me was singing with gusto but I just stared at them, clutching my candle as if it might save me from this Christmas nightmare.
The next song, I told myself, will be familiar.
But it wasn’t, reader. It wasn’t.
That’s not how you sing Oh Little Town of Bethelehem, I thought with rising horror. Or anything. Ever.
But it is. Here.
The problem is I know the US versions of those tunes as well as I know my own heartbeat. I don’t have to think about it – they rise from my subconscious memory without effort. I memorised them as a child through rote repetition and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to unlearn them. Singing those words with a different song was like being told to breathe just a little differently.
I did try but it didn’t work. My singing was out of tune. My voice sounded dubious even to my own ears. My heart wasn’t in it.
It didn’t feel like Christmas.
At last, I gave up the feeble attempt and just listened to other people sing as my candle dripped warm wax onto my hand.
Over the years I’ve had plenty of time to think about this situation. I might not have carols, but at least I have Christmas songs. Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. All the familiar voices. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose…
But even the secular Christmas songs were different here and I don’t know why I thought they wouldn’t be. I’d never heard of The Snowman cartoon before I moved to Britain. Or of Slade.
I’ve come to like most of the popular British songs in a distant sort of way. But not all. I could happily throw Wham’s “Last Christmas” from the top floor of The Shard and watch it shatter into ten million pieces.
But I still prefer the ones I grew up with. So every year I pack my iPod with “The Little Drummer Boy” and “White Christmas” and all the songs I love and make my own holiday soundtrack.
Here are my Top 10 Christmas songs. In any nation.
Nat King Cole — The Christmas Song
Lou Rawls – Christmas Is
Run DMC – Christmas in Hollis
The Kinks — Father Christmas (Give us Some Money)
Dean Martin – Let it Snow!
Brenda Lee – Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping
The Ramones – Merry Christmas (I don’t want to fight)
Louis Armstrong – Zat you Santa Claus?
Otis Redding — White Christmas