It is one of life’s ironies that so much of what we focus on every day does not really involve what we need for our emotional health, with the result that loneliness is fast becoming one of the scourges of 21st century western living. Many of the key feelings which contribute to moments of happiness come from being part of something, of a team or a community: being sociable, if not during every minute or with every person, but often enough. To be able to engage in conversation, to relax, to sing together or listen to music, to recite stories, to dance or to enjoy watching others dance.
If New Year is about dancing and parties, then Christmas is about songs and carols. Carols were first noted in the 4th century AD, but the first ones appear in English in about 1426 when a country chaplain, John Awdlay, listed twenty five “caroles of Cristemas” which were likely sung in the open air.
Christmas services have a reassuring ritual, we all sang carols at school and there is a cadence and rhythm to the language as well as the music. It is a well-trodden formula. During such services we are asked to pause for a few minutes, to think and pray for others and that is exactly what we did yesterday when we held our now traditional “Songs for Peace” event here at the Castle.
We hold this event in aid of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). These extraordinary doctors, nurses and associated volunteers go in to help, in countries torn by strife or natural disaster when most people are in fear and running in the other direction. It is a way of sharing what they do as they are entirely dependent on donations to fund their endeavours.
I have bought some Christmas carol CDs to play in between times, when the choirs who are joining us at such events for much of the next three weeks are taking a break. I love their familiarity and the memories they conjure. My sisters and I will always smile and glance at each other as the descant verses come round – our mother, who had a lovely voice, always launched into every descant with great enthusiasm to our great embarrassment as children. She particularly loved the carol “In the bleak Midwinter” so we are sang it yesterday and, as ever, I thought of her. Since it was very much December weather as well, it was particularly apposite.
Later on during the Christmas period, some of our entertainment at home in the evenings is again around song and dance. One of the funniest evenings we have had here was when we rented a karaoke machine which we set up in the Library for use after supper. It took a little bit of encouragement to get going but it soon began to come into its own. Some of the joint efforts were so hilarious I remember seeing one girlfriend laughing so hard, she had tears streaming down her face. I can also clearly see my mother-in-law sitting on one of the large red sofas watching it all with some bemusement whilst my son has never recovered from the embarrassment of watching his father sing. Singing together, laughing and sometimes dancing is what it is all about.
“Modern dancing” seems to me to be often a solo occupation and Jane Austen’s heroines would have had a very tricky time meeting and exchanging words with any prospective beau. I am not sure we will quite revert to dancing of the 18th century ilk, but I do enjoy Scottish Reeling and feel rather like my mother lining people up to dance together. It is elegant and everyone takes part. You also meet everyone in the room. The key is to have a few people who know what they are doing…
So many events here at Highclere incorporate music and dancing from singing carols this year around a tree, from Heroes at Highclere in 2018 looking forwards to VE Day (May 8th 2020). Let’s dance and sing as 75 years ago our parents, grandparents and great grandparents danced and sang. Perhaps we should all do so, from all “sides” and then take time out to listen to talks in the speakers tent, enjoy the spectacles we create and reflect with a little sobriety as well on what they hoped to create for the future.