City of David

I had a brainwave in the shower Christmas Eve morning. It had been building for a while, I think, but I was humming Joni Mitchell’s “River” and remembering how I played it for colleagues a couple of weeks previous on a semester-end Zoom social. I work with the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University, and many of my colleagues and our students are Muslim. Easy assumptions about Christmas are therefore suspect, but it’s not a matter of rejection. My friend and co-lecturer Mansur Ali, for example, gives an annual sermon about the nativity and the importance of Jesus in Islam.

Nonetheless, I didn’t think that “O Holy Night” would be the right one to bust out. And puerile commercial Christmas songs like “Jingle Bells” just grind in the annoying dominance of the season with none of the spiritual uplift. Well, “River” is the silver tuna, then. Christmas-adjacent, and pretty besides. One of my students even beckoned her mum to join the Zoom call to hear.

Photo by Katie Munnik

So now we’re all locked down again for Christmas. The governments at Westminster and the Senedd really mishandled the messaging for this season. They devised a dubious pretext for safe family gatherings, which then required a tranche of other disruptions to school and university students so that isolation could happen in time to make these gatherings “safe”. I personally thought this was a bad idea, but the stakes are low for me anyways because my family is all back in Canada; we’ve been used to being just the five of us for the holidays for many years.

I’m not a Grinch, though, and I’m sympathetic to the desire of those whose grannies and aunties and cousins and such are close. I’m also a pragmatist, and I know that many, many British people were going to do it anyway. But when the weight of the bad-ideaness crushed even the bumbling optimism of Boris Johnson, who redrafted people’s plans with less than a week to go, even I felt angry and dismal.

That was the moment the ukulele brainwave should have landed, but it took a few days.

Back in the spring and summer, I got through lockdown in part by playing a song on the ukulele each day and uploading the video to Facebook and Twitter. I called it #UkuleleLockdown, and though I’d seen the hashtag in use elsewhere, I don’t think anybody took to it with the gusto I did. It was fun, gave me a habitual focus, and connected me to family and friends near and far. Reprising it for Christmas was clearly the right thing to do.

I missed my run-up to Christmas, but I could till badge it as Twelve Days of Christmas – Thirteen, as I included Christmas Eve, making it appropriately unlucky for 2020. I’ve got a nice, eclectic list, including one of my own, and the subject of the rest of this post.

Yes, I wrote a Christmas song. No, you can’t buy it. Yes, it was written on the ukulele.

I can’t remember whether my mom commissioned a Christmas song from me for her church choir or whether I wrote it and she then picked it up. One way or another, the plan was for them to have an original Christmas tune of mine to sing back at St Andrews Presbyterian Church, Nanaimo, BC.

I wrote the thing in 2009 – during my dark transition between broadcast journalist and postgraduate student. I guess I was starting to think more like an academic. Anyway, I put a lot of mental energy into this song, and I don’t think it helped it, in the long run.

Listening to it now to get ready to record it, my thought was, “What the hell was I thinking?” The melody ranges, the chords get increasingly complicated, and it modulates. (Hmm – now that I think about it, that’s what a lot of pop Christmas tunes do…) As my wife says, it’s memorable, but you can’t keep with it because it stops being hummable. The choir ended up not doing it: it was too high for them to sing, and even when I sent new chords and notation dropping it from G to E, it was a bit too complicated.

Well, I’ve had time to consider it the last day or two. And since I’m recording it for the lockdown and offering it to the world, here’s a wee apologia.

The basic melody is very simple and jangly. This works for hummability, but it would be hard to sustain over four verses of the same thing. Too samey – the melody is not intrinsically interesting enough to just keep going. It would be annoying. So I introduced some changes partly for musical interest. And though the modulations are pretty weird, they are generally defensible within musical theory (except maybe the fourth line of verses 2 and 3…)

Moreover, it suits the theological content of the song. What starts as a simple song and simple story becomes increasingly complex as we discover – well, that the baby boy is no mere babe, as all the other carols tell us. “Over an evening, the story starts to change” I sing at the end of the first verse, and that’s exactly what the song does. And it modulates up – it lifts as our own attention is drawn higher by angels and stars. We end higher than we began.

There. That’s my essay. That’s what the hell I was thinking when I wrote it. I’m still not sure it’s a “good song”, but it’s my Christmas song, and I’m sharing it with you today. And for those keeping score, I’ve dropped it even further to D. Maybe Nanaimo will pick me for Christmas 2021!

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