There are several traditions of writing icons of the Virgin and Child in Russian and Greek Orthodoxy but I was attracted to an eighteenth century Ethiopian icon in which Jesus is portrayed as an African child.
I have enjoyed attending Rob Gallacher’s icon school once a month over the last eighteen months and this is the fourth icon I have written.
Advent and Christmas
The word “advent” comes from a Latin root meaning “coming” or “arrival”. The length of the season has varied at different times, but is now generally observed over the period of the four Sundays prior to Christmas and has been considered the beginning of the liturgical year since the 9th century. Advent was originally developed as a preparation for the celebrations of Christmas – the arrival or coming of Christ. The season, however, has also come to be a period of reflection on the church’s expectation of a “parousia”, or “second coming”, of Christ. The ministry of John the Baptist also features in the readings of this period.
Like all seasons of the Christian year, Advent and Christmas are caught between Easter and (the following) Good Friday. It is in the brilliant light of Easter that Christmas takes on its hopeful significance, and it is the journey from Christmas to Good Friday which fills out our understanding of the one who has come, who will be lost, and who we will meet again. Being seasons of Easter, Advent and Christmas are gospel-seasons of unexpected life out of death. Christian hope arises not out of our desperate need and waiting, nor from the natural potential of a newborn baby, but when both need and potential are flouted by a God who saves us by subverting our understanding of what we need and might become. Advent is not hopeless, nor Christmas optimistic, but are seasons for remembering a future we could not otherwise envision but towards which God draws us, sometimes in spite of ourselves, but always to our benefit and to his glory.
May this Advent and Christmas be a time of blessing for you all.
2013 Advent Festival
The third biennial Advent Festival held at Newman College from 30th November to 1st December was an uplifting and marvellous experience for the many who attended. There were six from Mark the Evangelist Congregation: Rob and Norma Gallacher, Robert and Susan Gribben, and John and Wendy Langmore. We encourage others to participate in future years.
The Festival program was held in several of the beautiful venues at Newman College. An afternoon guided tour of this architectural treasure, much of it designed by Walter and Marion Burley Griffin in 1915, gave us a new appreciation of the buildings we have all passed so often in Swanston Street. In 2001 Newman College was one of five Australian buildings registered as being “of world heritage significance” by the UAI international organization of architects.
The Oratory, one of the original Griffin public spaces, was the main meeting room. At the entrance was a wonderful display of icons written by Rob and Norma Gallacher, which drew a lot of admiration. Each morning, Rob led a devotion on an icon, ‘Saint Andrew’ on Saturday, his feast day, and ‘the Annunciation’ on the first Sunday of Advent. These reflections were very inspirational as Rob not only explained the symbolism of the icons and the Biblical stories on which they were based but led us in discovering their meaning for our lives.
Another related talk was given by Ursula Betka, from Latrobe University Medieval Art Department. Her scholarly, illustrated lecture was on the importance of the mystic and aesthetic vision of light in both Eastern icon writing with the use of gold leaf, and the stained glass of the Gothic medieval churches.
The amazing, lofty octagonal dining room, surmounted by its dome and high stone lantern, was the venue not only for meals but for a performance on Sunday afternoon of Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Virgin Saint, by the choir of Newman College.
Most of the glorious music of the weekend was performed in the College Chapel of the Holy Spirit, a building added in 1942. The daily offices and a mass were held each day in the Chapel, with a number of remarkably expressive and harmonious Melbourne choirs leading the worship. The musical highlight for me was the Feast of Saint Andrew at None with the well-known Leonard Gregorian playing intricate guitar music accompanied by six male voices of the Schola Cantorum of Melbourne. It was breathtakingly beautiful. The afternoon sun poured through the large west window, adding a warm glow to the Chapel.
This is a story just made for Christmas, starting with difficulties on a journey and ending with the kindness of strangers bearing gifts …
My daughter Jess rang, leaving an urgent, garbled message and a mobile number to contact Suzie, her friend who had set off from Sydney with her two boys (Zachary, 5, and little Jake, 3) on a cruise ship headed for New Zealand and a week of fun in the sun.
Instead, in the night and out at sea, Jake’s “sore tummy” proved to be a nasty hernia needing emergency surgery. The nearest hospital, in Geelong, advised that he should urgently be taken to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne – and so a rescue boat was sent out to the ship to get the little family to shore, into an ambulance and to the RCH Emergency Department without delay.
When I heard about it next morning, and met up with Suzie and the two boys (despite the best efforts of the RCH car park to frustrate, delay and, later, impoverish me!) Jake was on a list for surgery, and staff at this wonderful hospital had supplied the family’s immediate needs and allowed all three to stay together in Jake’s room.
Not a lot I could contribute, apart from coffee and nana-type reassurance. But I felt more was needed. I rang the Manse and found Annette at home. Bingo! Herself the mother of a little boy, our friend Coulton, Annette cut straight to the chase: “Have the boys got any toys with them?” Well, no, except for one knitted teddy, thanks to the panicky nature of their disembarkation.
Result: Annette sorted through toys at her house and within an hour or so Craig delivered a “care bundle” to a very grateful mother and excited boys. Of course, the real hero was Coulton, who allowed his toys to be lent to them – and gave this story its happy ending. Especially as Jake came through his operation very well, and everyone’s hoping they can re-join that cruise in New Zealand …
On behalf of the Merretts, thanks and Happy Christmas, Thompson Family!
Remembering Nan Stevenson
Seven members of Mark the Evangelist congregation travelled to Springvale Crematorium where Rev Dr Gwen Ince led the funeral service for Nancy Annette Stevenson on 14th November. As you know, Nan was a very quiet and private person so it was great to hear from family and friends about her very interesting life. We thought you may like to know some of what we heard.
Born in North Fitzroy in 1927, Nan and her sister Pat had a happy childhood in North Melbourne where their father ran a grocery shop opposite the market in Victoria Street. Nan’s primary education took place at the Teacher Training College School in the grounds of Melbourne University and she later attended MLC in Kew.
From a small child Nan had her mind set on becoming a nurse and to quote a nursing friend:
At about age 18 – 19 Nan ‘fell for a handsome young Australian Air Force Officer’ but marriage was out of the question as there was no choice but to leave and give up a career.’ Nancy and Bill Stevenson (Epidemiologist at Fairfield Hospital and Chief Health Officer of Victoria) were married in 1972 and enjoyed much travel together including four medical tours to the Peoples’ Republic of China.
The tributes closed with a story told by Nan’s friend Sue:
For many years music for these ceremonies was provided by Tony Fenelon. When Tony left RMH so did the music. I was surprised one day when Nan sidled up to me: “I believe you play the piano” she said somewhat conspiratorially. “A little” I answered warily. “Could you play the National Anthem for graduation?” she asked. I knew I had a copy at home and one didn’t say no to one’s boss easily, so somewhat reluctantly I agreed. A few days later there was another similar approach. “We also need some music for the nurses to process in to”. I was now very worried and practising every night when Nan approached a third time: “And we need about 10 minutes of background music to keep the audience entertained before the ceremony starts”. My anxiety sky-rocketed! By the appointed day the 10 minutes had become 20 (“because some people do arrive very early”) and the rest has become part of the annals of RMH…
(My thanks to Nan’s nephew David Stewart and nursing friend Sue Sherson for copies of their tributes on which the above is based.)
Report on 2013 Asylum Seeker Project Christmas Appeal
Thanks to all the members of Mark the Evangelist congregation for your usual generous support of the Asylum Seeker Project Christmas Appeal. We are pleased to tell you that the appeal raised $1165. Of that $400 was converted into $800 worth of food vouchers. Cards were donated to accompany the gifts and a greeting will be written on each card from the people of our congregation before taking our gifts to Lentara next week.
During 2013 as you know the management of the project moved from Hotham Mission to Lentara Uniting Care. The project continues to provide housing, professional and volunteer support, monthly cash relief, help with utilities bills, and other emergency help. This year your donations will enable 23 single individuals and 8 family groups including a number of children, to receive a gift.
These gifts are particularly welcome at this time of the year and they are a symbol of our concern for the situations in which so many of these people find themselves. We know that many of those who will receive our gifts are in very insecure situations, uncertain of their future, and perpetually fearful both for themselves and family members and friends in the countries they have left.
Akbar: our neighbour in need
Akbar, a young Iranian man, fled persecution in 2009. As a stateless Faili Kurd, he has no identification and does not know the date of his birth. He received no formal education. After nearly four years in detention (Christmas Island, Maribyrnong and Broadmeadows) he was released on a bridging visa on the eve of the September 2013 elections. His release came in response to repeated appeals and a comprehensive submission to the Minister for Immigration.
Although he is now ‘free’ his future is very uncertain as he struggles to live on 90% of the lowest Centrelink payment, and with no prospects of work or permanent accommodation. He remains physically and psychologically damaged from his prolonged incarceration. He must report regularly to the Immigration Department and his ‘bridging visa’ appears to be no ‘bridge’ to anywhere!
In September 2013 the congregation generously supported an appeal to provide Akbar with $50 cash per fortnight for three months. The response has been remarkable, raising $1,140 to date. This means he can receive $100 each fortnight for the foreseeable future. Akbar is very, very grateful, not only for the cash but for other material aid and for the church’s prayerful support as he is named each month in our intercessory prayers.
On behalf of Akbar, my heartfelt thanks for the congregation’s continued generosity. He is, indeed, a neighbour in need.
Monthly food voucher collection for asylum seekers
Many thanks to members of the congregation who have continued to donate cash or food vouchers throughout 2013. From February to November, we have raised $1090 to forward to the Asylum Seeker Project (ASP). This practical giving translates into food vouchers distributed at their discretion to asylum seekers in the community struggling on little or no income.
I have only recently been made aware that the Uniting Church Share Appeal will double donations for food vouchers in excess of $100; hence, our increased result this year. (Last year’s total was $880).
A reminder for continued food voucher donations will appear in the pew sheet monthly from February 2014. In view of the changed arrangements through the Share Appeal, it will be easier to collect cash rather than vouchers. So, donations of any amount will be gratefully received on the first Sunday of each month. For every $100 raised, Share Appeal will forward $200 on our behalf to the ASP.
ASP management have expressed their appreciation for this very practical way of assisting the neediest refugees in their care
Christmas Gift Giving
In 1997, with 4 children, 4 partners, and at that stage 5 grandchildren, our nuclear family decided that presents for everyone to everyone at Christmas just didn’t make sense. It worried us all that the Christmas season had become so commercial and our children were concerned about the effect of this on their kids. We decided together to start a family Kris Kringle, with each member giving only one gift to a name drawn out of the hat. For the first few years we agreed that the presents should be handmade. (As you can imagine, when the grandchildren were small this involved a fair bit of parental involvement.)
The presents were absolutely amazing, and often brought tears to the eyes – especially of those who were watching the unwrapping. There were beautifully painted pictures, framed in all sorts of creative ways, photos of activities and trips during the year, sculptures, hanging mobiles. I remember a beautiful garden mosaic, a very touching nativity scene, homemade chocolates, a silk sleeping sheet, mats and napkins. A very creative one was a musical instrument set – glasses filled with different levels of water!
Sixteen years later our practice is still going strong – with now 11 grandchildren. It has had to adapt a little to very busy lives. We have now agreed that it is OK to buy a present for the person you draw but it must cost no more than $20. The children often visit op shops and get great bargains. The level of creativity continues to grow and never ceases to amaze. Sometimes a family member writes a poem for another. We have had massages provided, a gift of time for two to just go for a walk together, a night’s babysitting. And so on. Interestingly, the bulk of the presents are still home-made.
This practice is now so much enjoyed that we know it is there to stay. One of the joys is that in contrast to the emphasis on ‘what we get at Christmas’, there is as much if not more enjoyment in giving. Even as the grandchildren have aged (they now range from 2 to 26) the participation and involvement has not waned. We are looking forward to another Kris Kringle this Christmas.
Post Card From Switzerland
The pictures accompanying this message were taken in 1994 when we were returning from a four month stay in England. We visited Gordola (Switzerland), the home of my paternal great-father Amant(e) Codiga before he migrated to Australia in 1858.
On Advent Sunday we worshipped with the local Catholic congregation (the service in Italian) where the Advent candles were displayed as in the picture below.
My Christmas, Then and Now
The mention of Christmas always brings back the fond memories of my late maternal grandmother.
It was in my early teens, long before Hong Kong became a cosmopolitan city, and western food was not readily available in those days. My grandma, who was a Buddhist, each year would treat us (my siblings and cousins) for Christmas lunch at a small local restaurant. I can still remember we could have two choices for soup, the Cream of Chicken or the Bortsch, and then some ham and chicken as mains, finishing with cakes and jelly as deserts (the menu was in Chinese language only). Those were such happy occasions. With few other adults around, we tasted food we would not normally have, and used knife and fork instead of chopsticks for meals. Having been brought up in a traditional Chinese family and told to give the utmost respect to our elderly relatives, my grandma was one of a handful that I enjoyed a warm relationship. The Christmas ritual however was somehow discontinued after a few years, and we were instead given some money for Christmas.
In those years, Christmas was also associated with worship and carols in school, all in Chinese, given that I was educated in a “Chinese stream” school as opposed to English under the dual school system at that time. My late parents, then non-believers (they became Christians in later years), sent me and my siblings to Christian Schools as those schools had a long standing reputation in providing good moral disciplines and desirable education outcomes. Most of us in the school were not Christians, but we enjoyed singing carols all the same.
By the time I finished study and started working, Hong Kong began to take shape as an international city, and has since been known as the “Pearl of the Orient”, where East meets West. For most Chinese in Hong Kong, Christmas is not a time for family reunions as such, given the fact that we still follow the tradition of having big family reunion dinners for a myriad of Chinese festivals, the Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival in particular. Christmas for many becomes a time for partying, getting together with friends and frantic gift-buying. With the turbo-charged commercial environment in Hong Kong, everything brighter and bigger is better. In numerous business districts, streets after streets are decorated with dazzling lights, shopping malls are ornamented with “over-sized” Christmas wreaths/bells and enormous Santa Claus figures everywhere. The streets are filled with so many people that one is just being pushed along all the way. The festive spirit will well continue into late January/February with the celebration of the Chinese New Year, the decorations will then have a makeover with red being the dominant colour, and big fake firecrackers as “must” ornaments.
When I spent my first Christmas in Melbourne some fourteen years ago, I walked to Bourke Street and was surprised by the low key, subdued Christmas decorations there – what a big contrast to what I had experienced in Hong Kong. I was nevertheless much intrigued by the Myer Windows – the nicely constructed sets of scenes, the moving figurines, the story telling lines, most of which I am not familiar with given my Chinese upbringing. The first Christmas in Melbourne was also a bit too quiet, without my extended family around. Things however changed in the following year. A friend known to Archie for decades invited us over for Christmas lunch when it was his turn to host the big family lunch. With a party of some 20 people, they had one whole turkey, one whole ham, Christmas pudding and numerous side dishes, all home-cooked. As I can barely manage my Chinese cooking, Christmas lunch appears to me as one big impossible cooking challenge.
Melbourne has changed a lot since I first arrived. The Christmas decorations in the big shopping malls can rival those in Hong Kong, perhaps even a notch up with the 24-hour non-stop Christmas shopping offered at the Chadstone Shopping Centre, a thing which is still unheard of in Hong Kong. In recent years, I started hosting Christmas lunch at home on Christmas Day, inviting our relatives – a young couple settled in Melbourne after studying here and both are Buddhists from Mainland China. They were served with store-bought ready-to- roast/eat food and they had much fun in pulling the Christmas crackers. Nowadays, I have come to appreciate the quieter Melbourne during Christmas, the leisure of not having to do any panic gift-buying or meeting any cooking challenge, and that I can always enjoy some quiet time listening to the CD recording of Christmas carols at the end of the day. However I still make a point of visiting the Myer Windows each year, taking into view the display of the Nativity scene there as well.
Christmas in South Africa
As a child in South Africa Christmas was the highlight of the long summer holidays. Settled warm days, lovely blue mountains surrounding the town and the wine farmers hurrying to bring in the crop on their nearby vineyards. Stellenbosch town was rather quiet at this time of the year with the students on holiday. This was great for us because the University swimming pool was open all day and swims were free. We were six children very close in age and free to go everywhere on our bikes. It was such a safe place to explore.
We followed the European tradition and also celebrated Christmas Eve. There was always a tree of some kind decorated by all the children usually on the day. My mother was busy preparing lovely food. I would sneak into the kitchen to see how my favourite was progressing. The “Fairy Tart” had 3 layers: lemon, custard and a marvellous caramel with bits of ginger. My father was inevitably still busy with the school Leavers’ Science exams but he did join us for Christmas Eve and when we were quite young he would become Santa dressed in red with a white beard but with my own dad’s voice. Quite mysterious for a little kid. When it got dark we all gathered around the tree and the candles were lit. I remember the special fragrance of burning pine leaves if a candle tipped over a bit. My dad read a gospel passage about the birth of Jesus and we sang a few carols – not very well I thought. Then the presents, small and inexpensive, but magnificent in my eyes.
We had limited pocket money. I recall endless trips to town on my bike to get the last bits and pieces. When we were older we just handed the presents out while my brother Sep made quirky comments.
There may have been peace in our town but World War Two was out there in the rest of the wide world and presents were scarce and costly. [I do have photos of us with tricycles and dolls, a pedal car and a cubby house but nothing special during the war years.] We loved an amazing baby baboon given to us by a farmer in the district after its mother died. Once before Christmas my mother went to Cape Town with all of us in tow. We held hands in single file and made straight for the gaps in the large crowds. With us was a man from Lesotho employed as a general help in the family. For him it was also the experience of a lifetime. He always told us how as a young kid he was kidnapped by a merchant from South Africa who asked him to show him the way around Lesotho and then never stopped again until he was too far from home.
Before Christmas there was an evening service in the church. A very tall pine tree was lit by candles and the church lights dimmed. A girls’ choir performed every year. We were dressed in white and looking beautiful I thought. Being on the gallery so near to a large pipe organ and singing in this situation one’s whole being sings . Most of these carols were Dutch or German sung in Afrikaans.
Many other customs were kept up for instance the man delivering the daily paper, the postman and the garbage collectors all turned up to wish people in the neighbourhood a happy Christmas and be given a tip as a thank you for their service during the year. (I remember my mother not being happy because some people would give alcohol instead of money which changed the whole atmosphere.)
Christmas morning we always attended a service at our local Dutch Reformed Church. Lunch afterwards was a lovely meal. Christmas 1951 when I finished High School was particularly memorable. We rented the holiday home of a wealthy fruit grower and started to build our own beach house across the road from him at Kleinmond on the remote Cape coast. At that stage there were only 5 homes.
Christmas Eve the younger set walked along a winding sandy footpath and sang carols outside the homes of friends. They invited us in. Then back home in the bright moonlight with a backdrop of breaking waves. Christmas brought spring tide and mountainous waves sweeping over the rocks next to the rented house. Foam came flying into the open windows on the second floor. Dinner was eaten on Royal Doulton china.
When I think about all this, what strikes me is the simplicity. Even the wrapping paper was so ordinary compared to now. The enjoyment was because of togetherness: happy relationships with people. We enjoyed the fun and the Christmas activities but the one message coming through our parents’ attitudes and actions was that all this was because a child was born, Immanuel, God with us.
The next year a very happy Christmas was spent at our own beach house. Six months later in July 1953 our youngest brother Malan (16) drowned at the beach nearby. We still loved the rugged beautiful coast and our holiday home but my parents and all of us were devastated. I don’t think that my mother in particular ever “got over” losing her youngest child. But life went on and God was still with us in His world.
Maybe a White Christmas
We are off to the USA for a cold weather Christmas like the ones I used to know! Maybe it will be a white Christmas, maybe not, but hopefully we will have some snow while we’re there. This will be the first time we have celebrated Christmas with my family, and my first time back for Christmas since 1992! (We have had plenty of visits back and forth, just not at Christmas as we have managed to avoid the cold weather until now.) Mark’s mum Mary will also celebrate a cold weather Christmas in London with Tessa and family.
When we first arrive in LA we plan to have a quick look at the La Brea Tar Pits and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (a study in contrasts – or maybe not!). Then we will visit Harry Potter World and meet up with my parents, sister and brothers and their spouses for a family reunion week at Disney World and Epcot in Orlando, Florida. We will stay at my parents’ home in Cape May, NJ, for three weeks including Christmas and New Year’s. Cape May is a Victorian seaside town at the southern tip of New Jersey. We have been there for the 4th of July, and also as Halloween was approaching. It’s a town that loves the holidays, so there will be lots of Christmas lights and decorations. On the way back we plan to visit Philadelphia and San Antonio, Texas (back to warmer weather!). We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Lauren, Mark, Arthur, Genevieve, and Mireille
Pier to Pub Swim
Ever since my arrival in Australia (Hobart, 1952) I have loved swimming. The first four years in Tasmania we lived very close to the beach. Later I swam competitively for a few years, with modest success, though never at national standard. My last competitive swim was for Ormond College while I was a student there in the mid-1960s.
Though I loved swimming, I did little of it, except for holidays at the beach, for some decades. Like many others who spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, I gained more weight than was good for my health and eventually resolved to do some regular swimming. Living at Ormond College, I went to the old Brunswick Baths, then (as now) run by the YMCA. The whole establishment has just been marvellously refurbished.
Apart from the benefit of the exercise – and swimming is one of the better forms of it, provided you put in some effort – I got to know a few people and started having a regular coffee after the swim with ‘Mike’, who soon became a friend. I discovered that for several years he had been going down to Lorne on the second Saturday of January for the annual Pier to Pub Swim.
The race has been held for more than thirty years and now attracts well over 4,000 swimmers ranging from 12 years to well over 70. Weather conditions range from the extremely hot to cold and blustery. The water is invariably cold, which is the reason most people, including me, wear a wetsuit. The Lorne Life Saving Club, which organises the event, claims it is the world’s largest open water swim. Whether it is really an ‘open water’ swim is a moot point, since swimmers are never more than a hundred metres from the shoreline.
In 1997 Mike suggested I join him for the January 2008 swim. Though the idea had never occurred to me, I took up the challenge and entered. Being (then) 63, I was put in the Super Veteran ‘wave’ for males. My two oldest grandchildren came with us for the day and were rather more impressed with my performance than they should have been. But I caught the bug, so to speak, and have swum the race every year since. My best time has been just under 21½ minutes. By the time the 2014 race is swum I will have turned 70, and will graduate to the ‘legends’ wave for people over 70. My times for the event probably won’t improve but my placing might.
Most years I have driven down for the day, leaving very early, registering, having a coffee, reading, perhaps having a swim and then, after the race, driving back. One year we were able to rent a place, owned by the Uniting Church but since sold, and were there for several days. This gave us the opportunity to have a look at the hinterland. So we discovered the Erskine Falls in the Otways and in the process visited a very good winery and a berry farm.
At some point during every race I have asked myself, ‘Do I really want to do this again?’ But the pleasure of finishing and the benefit of keeping in moderate training for the next year’s swim have pushed the doubts aside. I’d like to complete ten swims, which admits one into the ‘Sharkbait Club’. Despite the off-putting sound of that name, I’ve decided this is a realistic goal. I wish, of course, that I had started this whole thing earlier. If in any year I should be prevented from competing (or, more to the point, completing), I will happily hang up of my wetsuit. But if I make ten swims, presumably in 2017, I might be bold (or foolish) enough to go on.
The editor has the last word …
Very sincere thanks to all our contributors who have given us a great Christmas read with their stories and thoughts.
Christmas Music: Hallelujah or Horror?
Everyone has a view on Christmas music, even if they keep it under wraps. You can’t escape it in the supermarket, with crackling speakers – interrupted by price checks – yearning (pointlessly) for a white Christmas all too soon after the Cup Day run on picnic hampers.
Unfortunately, in the misguided view that the consumer will be softened by sentimentality the peddlers of tinsel and treacly treats don’t confine themselves to American “Yuletide” fare but also get their hands on music that’s best appreciated in its simplest, purest form: Christmas carols and seasonal songs like Deck the Halls.
The apex (or rock-bottom, depending on your view) of this combination is found in the likes of Melbourne’s Carols by Candlelight and the regrettably titled Woolworths Carols in the Domain in Sydney, complete with the likes of Humphrey Bear or the Wiggles. And yet both these events started so simply and so well …
The mix is also found – perhaps more appropriately – in hundreds of more low-key celebrations across the country, often hosted by local government Councils and attended by excited PJ-clad kids. The inevitable visit from Santa Claus simply adds to the cultural confusion – and general enjoyment.
If you prefer your carols unadulterated, local churches usually have a service of readings and carols close to the actual date. And cathedrals put on a show well worth attending, with blazing candles and a choir that knows how to sing in harmony.
The diversity of Christmas music is illustrated by the sell-out season of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noel! Noel!, a Sydney favourite that has in recent years added the Melbourne Recital Centre to its list of venues. While the program strays into reinvented popular songs, the emphasis is firmly on fine instrumental and vocal music.
As for “classical” music of the season the big winner is, of course, Messiah, the English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frederic Handel, with text from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Although the work was first performed as an anthem around Easter the stirring music and words tempt choirs of all sizes and abilities to make it their big production number for the end of the year.
Some choral societies craftily boost the numbers needed for the big choruses by combining a “sing-your-own” Messiah (an increasingly popular variation on the theme) with a ticket to rehearse and sing with them on the night.
Soloists are of course in demand, with popular artists such as mezzo Sally-Anne Russell easily clocking up dozens of Messiah performances in their career. But this year it’s pleasing to see the Australian Chamber Orchestra with Choir of London taking performances of J S Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
This massive six-part work is, in my view, the more obvious choice for the season, although its relative unfamiliarity and extraordinary length work against it. Some European churches solve the problem by scheduling the work over two nights, with rugging up and crunching over snow in the streets to the cathedral an atmospheric prelude to the performance. (Perhaps I too am dreaming of a white Christmas …)
As for the question of whether to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus in Messiah, I take it as a great opportunity to give a standing ovation (if somewhat orchestrated) to the musicians who have put their heart into fine performances throughout the year. I doubt that anyone seriously observes the tradition because King George ll started it – especially as history does not record why he chose to stand at that point!
Another reason for Melbourne audiences to be grateful for Christmas music of good quality is that they are usually staring down the barrel of a long, dry January with very little to look forward to in terms of fine classical music for at least a month. Sydney solves that problem by staging its major festival in January, so perhaps the solution for Victorians is simply to head north to join in.
Whatever your plans for Christmas, best wishes for the season – and for another year of great classical music in 2014!