I really wanted a donkey for the shelves. Donkeys, for me, are very Christmassy.
I remember watching my brother playing the donkey in the school nativity one year. I think I’d been ill and missed out on the auditions (I was desperate to be an angel with a tinsel halo), instead I sat in the audience, glaring at the Angel Gabriel. The time came, and my brother, in his grey outfit and ear hat led Mary, clutching her cushion tummy in one hand and Joseph’s hand in the other, around the school hall, all accompanied by the gentle plod of my favourite Christmas song, Little Donkey. To this day, it’s one of my favourite Christmas memories.
So as I placed our soft toy donkey on the shelf, I thought about all my other favourite Christmas songs. And here they are, my top ten:
10. Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy – David Bowie and Bing Crosby
Who doesn’t love the randomness of a duet between the King of Easy Listening and Ziggy Stardust? The video is so beautifully dated and the acting, pre-music, is almost unbearable. But their joined voices are sublime. I love how understated a song it is. It has a gentleness, a lovely kind of peacefulness, and it always makes me feel so calm amidst the Christmas excitement.
9. The Calypso Carol
This song takes me right back to assemblies at primary school. To this day I can remember all the words, and I don’t think I’ve heard it properly in over twenty years. I don’t know why anyone thought to put a calypso rhythm with the nativity story, but it’s certainly stuck in my memory. All together now…
See him lying on a bed of straw,
A draughty stable with an open door,
Mary cradling the babe she bore,
The Prince of Glory is his name.
8. I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake
Not the most cheery of Christmas songs, but for some reason I’m really drawn to it. To be honest, apart from a couple of upbeat numbers, I’m quite of fan of the more slow and sombre christmas tunes. I think they reflect the depths of winter and the darkness of the season. Greg Lake wrote I Believe in Father Christmas as an antidote to the growing commercialisation of Christmas. He acknowledged the tensions between what we are led to expect, the pressures we put on ourselves, and the reality we often experience. It’s not completely anti-festivities, Christmas after all is about a child coming to bring hope in a despairing time.
7. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
Probably the most joyous of Christmas carols. Written to be sung on Christmas morning, I love the unadulterated jubilation of this song. When I was a child, this is exactly what I imagined angels sounded like.
6. All I Want For Christmas is You – Mariah Carey
I had to include this, lame as it. But I think it falls in most people’s top ten. It’s just such a brilliant song to sing along to. And to admit to even more lameness, I love it even more since it was featured at the end of Love Actually.
5. Away in a Manger
Another one that takes me back, but this time even further, to the Sunday school nativity. I was a tea-towel wearing shepherd and I thought this was the most beautiful Christmas song ever. Over-used as it is, I still love it, and try to seek it out every year. Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a group of small children singing Away in a Manger.
4. Stop the Cavalry – Jona Lewie
This song probably wouldn’t be in this list if it wasn’t for my secondary school music teacher. More a political song than a festive one, but it still gets played lots around Christmas. My music teacher chose it for our choir to sing at the Christmas concert. Being 14 and it being the 90s, I’d never heard it before. But the political undertones spoke to me and I adopted it as my favourite Christmas song of the time, and I now can’t get through Christmas without it.
3. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland/Frank Sinatra
I was obsessed with this Christmas song as a teenager. It reached right to the depths of my angst-ridden heart. I loved the emotional melodrama of wishing a merry christmas is such tones that could convey nothing but despair for one’s own festivities. And now, like I Believe in Father Christmas and the ever played Do They Know it’s Christmas, it hints at a reality that we have to acknowledge amongst all the festivities, and makes us appreciate more all that we have.
2. Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) – The Darkness
A bit of modern glam rock for Christmas. I love everything about this song. The guitar solo. The video. The inclusion of every christmassy musical reference going – church bells, children, jingle bells, choirs. It’s a brilliant, irreverent parody of a Christmas song, fantastically done, with cheeky lyrics you can sing in front of the grandparents.
1. Little Donkey – Nina and Frederick
It’s not cool and it’s not grown-up, but it encompasses all that I love in a Christmas song. A gentle tune with somewhat doleful lyrics, served with a generous helping of nostalgia. Throw in that we owned it on vinyl and how could I not fall utterly in love with it.
Honourable Mention – The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came
I nearly forgot this one. Another melancholy carol, this time describing the annunciation to Mary by the archangel Gabriel. I learnt to play this on recorder at primary school, I couldn’t resist the mournful, lilting melody. I like that the song makes Mary the central character and proclaims her importance, she did after all play a pretty major role in the Christmas story.
And I’m all about celebrating the mamas.