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The Christmas Song Paradox

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My title today refers to a paradox relating to Christmas repertoire in general, rather than to the specific song of that title. But now I’ve mentioned it, I am going to be self-indulgent and get a few things off my chest.

  1. Why the definite article? Other Christmas songs are available
  2. Nobody dresses up like Eskimos for Christmas. For sure there are all kinds of wintry clichés associated with the festival that have little or nothing to do either with its pagan origins or its appropriation to celebrate a Palestinian-born Messiah. (For example, I don’t recall the gospels mentioning penguins along with the ox and the ass). But the Eskimos line is clearly there for no other purpose than to rhyme with ‘Jack Frost nipping at your nose’.

    And you wouldn’t think it should be too hard to find something else, less absurd, that would fit. Chose, crows, doze, froze, goes, hellos, joes, lows, pose, prose, rose, sews, shows, suppose, toes, those, woes…all those possibilities…

    Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
    And played through speakers made by Bose

    Okay, so this doesn’t pass the ‘less absurd’ test, but it is likely to be more factually accurate.

  3. Everybody knows that candles and some fairy lights help to keep the season bright. Turkeys and mistletoe have their seasonal uses, but not typically as lighting solutions.

Okay, I’ll stop now. None of those are actually paradoxes, merely idiosyncrasies.

The phrase ‘Christmas song paradox’ was coined by Andrew Walker, director of Affinity Show Choir when we were chatting recently about the experience of repertoire choruses that maintain a gradually-evolving selection of material for year-round performances, plus a bunch of Christmas songs that you pull out every autumn for an intensive burst of seasonal performances in December, then put away again for 9 or 10 months. A bit like Christmas decorations really.

What you find when you get them out each year is that you are suddenly and vividly reminded how the ensemble was singing the year previously. Indeed, if you have a large Christmas repertoire and not much time to polish beyond refreshing notes and words, each song may represent a snapshot of where the chorus was on its journey in the year the song was added to the repertoire.

Such is the power of ‘muscle memory’. (Which isn’t actually stored in the muscles, of course, but the memory of how to use those muscles to sing those songs.) And you can tut at the singers’ reversion to prior habits all you like, but the paradox is this: if it weren’t for that muscle memory, you’d have no seasonal repertoire stored in your chorus at all.

The process that preserves habits you spent the whole year combating is the same process that preserves the repertoire in a performable state from year to year. You don’t get to enjoy the benefit of memory without dealing with downside of past habits.

For the record, the way I like to deal with this is by keeping a small enough seasonal set that there is time to polish and update beyond the basic dusting-off. If you have made significant progress during the year, then the dusting-off process presents a useful means both to measure how far you’ve come, and also take some conscious control over applying those skills to previously-learned music.

Though of course, it is much easier to apply new skills in repertoire that isn’t replete with old habits, so leaving time to add something new to the set each year is also a good idea.

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