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Welcoming the Christmas season. November 30, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Last Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent, when our friend Ben and I very sadly bid farewell to the season of Harvest Home that culminates in Thanksgiving, which we love, and turn our faces to our very favorite time of year, the Christmas season.

Mind you, it’s not even December yet, so you won’t find us putting up our tree or cloaking our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, with lights, or anything like that. We like to build up to Christmas to keep the excitement going. But we do like to acknowledge the change in seasons with a few significant changes.

First, to celebrate the Advent season, when all the Christian world prepares to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, we set out our Advent calendar. In our case, it’s one by the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Tasha Tudor, whose early 19th-century lifestyle we admire enormously. Advent calendars have little “doors” (usually paper, as in the case of ours) that you open each day to reveal an illustration, thought, or scripture passage, leading up to Christmas. The excitement of opening a new door every day awakens the child in all of us.

Next, we get out our Christmas incense, balsam and pine and frankincense and myrrh and every good Christmas thing, and our Christmas candles, pine-scented, cinnamon- and clove-scented, bayberry, and so on. We love candles and incense, and we love changing them according to the seasons, so this is an important seasonal ritual for us, ushering in the Christmas season.

We don’t want to rush Christmas decorating, but we always set out two harbingers of Christmas on our mantel on the first Sunday of Advent: a small olivewood Nativity scene from the Holy Land that I acquired as an undergraduate, and a delightful Mary Engelbreit card of Santa approaching a chimney with “Believe” written below. We do believe in all that the magical season of Christmas has to offer.

The only other early-Christmas effort we make is to get out and start playing our collection of Christmas music. Every year, we try to add a CD or two to our collection, and, loving music as we do, nothing says Christmas to us (besides the smells of the season) more than music. We’ll share our faves with you tomorrow.

Soon, we’ll begin watching our annual “Scroogefest” of various DVD interpretations of Charles Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol. We’ll read our favorite Christmas classics. We’ll decorate our tree, mantel, and table, put up a wreath on the front wall of Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home, plan our Christmas meals, write our Christmas cards, gather all our Christmas gifts. We’ll prepare to delight each other and spoil our dog, cats, and birds, surprise our neighbors, and give our very best to our families and friends when the big day comes.

Meanwhile, we’ve got a lot to do. And a lot to enjoy. And the enjoyment starts now!

            ‘Til next time,


Ben Picks Ten: Christmas Carols December 14, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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What are your favorite Christmas carols? If you could only pick ten, what would they be? Our friend Ben was pondering this last night as Silence Dogood and I listened to some of our large assortment of beloved Christmas CDs. Deciding to rise to the challenge, I’ve compiled my top ten here, in no particular order. Feel free to take me to task for leaving out your favorites!

1. Gabriel’s Message. Perhaps Silence and our friend Ben fell so hard for this because, not being English, we’d never heard it until we heard Sting perform it on a CD of unfortunately dubious origin. But what a stunning account of the Annunciation! You can hear an older Sting sing it on his “If on a Winter’s Night…” CD (missing an octave or so, but still compelling), or Charlotte Church’s gorgeous version on her “Dream a Dream” CD.

2. The Little Drummer Boy. Call us sentimentalists, but we never tire of listening to our many versions of this. Our friend Ben suspects that Silence has never yet heard it without shedding a few tears.

3. Silent Night. The first song Silence ever performed solo before a group. Even lovelier in French. We once attended a performance where the audience was invited to sing along in any language they chose, and we heard many a voice raised in the original German as well as English and our French. We know of no other Christmas song that succeeds so well in capturing the Gospel of Luke’s account. 

4. Adeste Fidelis (O Come All Ye Faithful). Squeak and squawk though one might on the high passages, who can resist lifting up their voices when this majestic hymn is sung? 

5. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. We love this hearty injunction to ‘let nothing us dismay.’ It seems to bring Scrooge and company, blazing fireplaces, and opulent Victorian Christmas scenes into our living room, warming us with its Christmas cheer. 

6. Joy to the World. In the season of joy, this glorious call to proclaim the birth of Christ is irresistible. Another hymn that’s not easy to sing, but we always sing it, anyway. 

7. The Cherry Tree Carol. We love this simple early English carol about Joseph’s all-too-human reaction when he discovers that his fiancee is carrying someone else’s child, and how he discovers Whose child it is.

8. The Huron Carol (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime). We were enchanted by this Native American version of the Nativity the first time we heard Rob Yoder, who has a magnificent voice, sing it on the “An Evening of Christmas Music with Daybreak and Friends” CD. Ellen Reid of the Crash Test Dummies also sings a lovely version on their “Jingle All the Way…” CD. We trust our Canadian friends won’t be surprised by its inclusion.

9. Once in Royal David’s City. Our friend Ben has always loved this traditional British carol, set in “a lowly cattle shed.” And Silence and I also love Ian Anderson’s modernization of it on “The Jethro Tull Christmas Album” CD.

10. Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel. Okay, technically, this is an Advent rather than a Christmas hymn. But it’s so stirring, such a perfect prelude to the Christmas season, I can’t imagine making a list without it.

And the bonus:

11. Angels We Have Heard on High. Musicians through the ages have given their very best to Christmas music, which is why a list like this is so hard to narrow down. And here is yet another breathtaking paean to the birth of Christ that makes the heart soar, even as we falter when trying to hit the high notes on the “Glorias.” But of course it doesn’t stop us.

Obviously, this list omits many of our favorite hymns and carols, such as the lovely “Coventry Carol (Lully Lullay),” “Carol of the Bells,” “O Holy Night,” “What Child Is This,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “The First Noel,” “Good King Wenceslaus,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and, of course, the gorgeous “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and beloved “Ave Maria.” But our friend Ben could only pick ten (plus one)! Maybe I’ll post about those next Christmas, since there happen to be ten of them.

You’ll note that many of our all-time sentimental favorites are missing, for the same reason. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are especially partial to “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (especially Josh Groban’s interpretation on his “Noel” CD), and “Silver Bells.”

Honorable mention must also go to some original modern songs of surpassing loveliness, including Ian Anderson’s “Ring Out Solstice Bells” from “The Jethro Tull Christmas Album,”  Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven/Mary’s Song” from her “Home for Christmas” CD, and Emily Cole’s “Sound of the Tambourine” from “An Evening of Christmas Music with Daybreak and Friends.”  And of course the raucous and wonderful “Soul Cake” on Sting’s “If on a Winter’s Night…” CD.

So, there’s our friend Ben’s list. (And yes, I cheated by sticking all that other stuff on at the end. But watcha gonna do?! There are just too many good ones.) Your turn to share your lists!

The best Christmas music. December 10, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is a sentimentalist at heart, and I love playing Christmas carols pretty much nonstop throughout December. (Luckily, Silence Dogood shares this taste, and none of our animals know how to object, so we assume they enjoy our Christmas CDs, too.) But it’s one thing to enjoy carols and hymns, and quite another to want to be subjected to Alvin and the Chipmunks, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the dog-barking Christmas carols. Spare us, please.

Our friend Ben wrote a post last December listing our all-time favorite Christmas CDs, “Ben Picks Ten: Christmas Music,” and I have little reason to change my choices this year, so by all means search for this post on our search bar and stock up on any CDs that sound appealing.

We were, however, able to acquire one coveted CD after I wrote that post, and of course have been loving it. We’ve been fans of the Crash Test Dummies since “MmmmMmmmMmmmMmmm” and “The Superman Song,” and their Christmas CD, “Jingle All the Way…,” was high on our must-get list. Unfortunately, its price was something over $200, a rare collectible. Damn.

Then, suddenly, Amazon was offering an imported version for a few bucks. We snapped it up. And did it ever live up to its reviews! Our friend Ben says: Check it out! (But mind you, we are talking about the Crash Test Dummies here. Interspersed with beautiful renditions of traditional carols are Brad Roberts’ warped but highly entertaining takes on “White Christmas ” and “Jingle Bells.” So don’t expect 100% sweetness and light!)

And don’t forget the other CDs I’ve recommended. Make the season bright! And by all means, let me know if I’ve left one of your faves off the list. We’re always on the lookout for great Christmas music!

Ben Picks Ten: Christmas Albums December 5, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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‘Tis the season for Christmas music. But that’s “music,” not “muzak,” please! The saccharine drivel pouring out of sound systems in stores across the country is enough to drive anyone to do his or her Christmas shopping online. So this year, our friend Ben, with some input from the irrepressible Silence Dogood, has picked out the top ten Christmas CDs from our extensive collection to help put you in the Christmas spirit.

If I’ve missed your favorite, please let me know what it is. We might want to make it part of our permanent collection! Unless, of course, it’s Alvin and the Chipmunks or anything else in an ear-shattering falsetto, or or one of those tiresome albums by people who sing in a sickening fakey voice that just screams “I hate these stupid songs, but I’ll do anything for money.” Spare us, please.

Without more ado:

1. The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. No, I’m not kidding. We happen to love Ian Anderson’s music, but even those who don’t will love this album. Don’t take my word for it—read the reviews on Amazon. It is fabulous! Our friend Ben has heard that the Crash Test Dummies produced an incredible Christmas album, too, but apparently it’s now a collector’s item and we haven’t been able to find it. Oops, I should add that one of the most amazing renditions of a Christmas carol I’ve ever heard was on a Sting album called “Rarities” that I bought years ago and subsequently suspected was a bootleg of god-knows-what. But to hear Sting’s rendition of “Gabriel’s Message” is an experience you’ll never forget.

2. Noel by Josh Groban. Josh Groban has a beautiful voice, and he puts it to good use on this album of Christmas classics. Most touching is “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” featuring voice-overs by soldiers in Iraq. It still brings tears to our eyes every time we hear it. Silence notes that the photo of Josh on the cover isn’t hard on the eyes, either. 

3. Mistletoe and Wine by Mediaeval Babes. A lush and lovely collection of mediaeval carols from “The Holly and the Ivy” to “The Coventry Carol.” Go Babes! This album proves that at least there was something good about the Middle Ages!

4. An Evening of Christmas Music with Daybreak and Friends. Daybreak’s Rob Yoder has a gorgeous operatic voice, and he and his family and friends have put together a marvelous album of little-known (to us, anyway) Christmas carols from around the world and from ancient times to the present, as well as beloved carols like “Carol of the Bells,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “What Child Is This?” and “Good King Wenceslaus.” We especially love Emily Cole’s “Sound of the Tambourine,” and we promise you that Rob’s amazing vocals will send a shiver down your spine.

5. Dream a Dream by Charlotte Church. We loved Charlotte Church’s debut album, “Voice of an Angel,” and her Christmas album lives up to its predecessor. There may be a contemporary female singer with a more beautiful voice, but we’ve yet to hear her. A luscious collection of traditional carols. Find it, buy it, ’nuff said.

6. Carpenters Christmas Collection. Our friend Ben thought The Carpenters were rather sickening back in the day. Brother and sister singing love songs? Eeeewww!!! But Karen Carpenter’s clear voice is perfect for this two-disc, 30-song collection of Christmas favorites. Get over who’s singing and just enjoy the music.

7. On Christmas Night by Cherish the Ladies. A lovely collection of Christmas carols with a Gaelic lilt  from a wonderful Irish group. If you love Celtic music, you’ll love this album!

8. Midnight Clear by Andreas Vollenweider featuring Carly Simon. Our friend Ben admits that I’ve loved Andreas Vollenweider’s incredible harp music from the first time I ever heard it. This album, with Carly Simon contributing vocals on four of the carols, proves that his exceptional talent hasn’t dimmed with time. A must-have.

9. Home for Christmas by Amy Grant. Our friend Ben loves Amy Grant, a fellow Nashvillian, anyway, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint with this collection of Christmas songs, carols, and hymns. It’s delightful! I’ve heard that Amy has a new Christmas album that should be in stores now, but haven’t yet been able to find it. (Help me, Santa!) I suspect it might make it to my top ten next year!

10. The Very Best of Celtic Christmas. Can you tell that our friend Ben and Silence love Celtic music? This Windham Hill collection presents a range of Celtic musicians and groups, including the incomparable Kevin Burke and Micheal O Domhnaill, Donal Lunny, Maighread Ni Dhomnaill, Phil Cunningham, Johnny Cunningham, James Galway, Nightnoise, and Altan, performing Celtic Christmas fare and classics like “The Wexford Carol,” “Lully Lullay,” and the breathtakingly lovely “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”

And the bonus:

11. Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas. Our friend Ben’s grandparents simply adored “Der Bingle,” but admittedly, I kind of missed the point. It’s never too late to learn, however, and this two-disc, 44-song collection presents Bing’s best-loved classics, including, of course, “White Christmas,” “Happy Holiday,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and one of our friend Ben’s sentimental favorites, “Silver Bells.”

Honorable mention:

Best Loved Christmas Carols by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge. A luscious two-CD compendium of traditional hymns and carols done in the Choir of King’s College’s inimitable style.

Christmas with Chanticleer. The mediaeval group performs the first Christmas music. 

Christmas Around the World. Another great Putumayo collection.