For me, as for so many people, Christmas comes with a soundtrack – not a playlist, because it’s more about what we all hear at this time of year. There are carols, sung in church or around a tree or heard on the radio. Then there are Christmas songs, old and new. Some people think they’re played too early each year. Obviously I like some more than others, but they brighten the dark, cold days of early winter – as do the light shows and festive lights in homes and gardens which have become so popular.
Thinking about music for wellbeing, it’s as a unifying force that music can come into its own – a shared experience, shared creativity. Christmas is the only time in the year when many people come together with others to share in singing – in church or at an outdoor event. The novelty of this communal music-making helps make carols all the more memorable and powerful for people. Others might find themselves singing along to carols or songs on the radio, on TV or online, particularly as Covid 19 is still overshadowing gatherings. Still others sing regularly in choirs or singing groups, many because they find it helps their mood and wellbeing, and Christmas music will be integral to their repertoire. Either way, carols and songs become and remain a shared, common heritage.
Like most music, carols can conjure all different moods. They can be joyful, hopeful, celebratory, plaintive or wistful. They might be lively with a strong beat, sung by a crowd, or they might have the most impact heard sung by a cathedral choir. They’re traditionally sung by candlelight, maybe followed by mulled wine or mince pies – sights, sounds and tastes which brighten Christmas. And they sing of faith and hope, of God’s presence in the Nativity which Christmas is all about.
They’ve stood the test of time too – I learned the other day that it was St Francis of Assisi who introduced community carol singing. He alsco created the very first public nativity scene.
Another aspect to explore here is how many people struggle with Christmas, in all different ways, as issues they live with throughout the year come to a head – maybe depression, loneliness or family conflict. There’s immense pressure on people to have a wonderful time, and it’s simply unlikely to be like that for many. And music and song can themselves contribute to this. Song lyrics idealize Christmas as an endless part, bathing us all in a warm glow – but making many people feel sidelined and left out. Moreover, music is so closely linked to memory that carols and songs can revive memories very strongly, which could be bittersweet, only exacerbating sadness at this time of the year.
But music and song could also be one part of Christmas which people might still respond to, even if they find this a difficult time. Carols and songs lift mood, sometimes at the most unexpected moments. And for people with dementia, for whom music is so helpful, carols could be the best way to draw them in to the festivities.
Whether people long for Christmas or dread it, carols can transport us to a different place, lifting Christmas to another level, infusing an element of wonder.
It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!