Monday 24 October 2016

Bringing home the best of Christmas

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

Miriam O'Callaghan: RTE star in the Christmas mood Photo: Tom Burke
Miriam O'Callaghan: RTE star in the Christmas mood Photo: Tom Burke

Christmas is no time for innovation. What works best is what always worked best. That's why Christmas Around Europe, when radio stations across the continent team up for a series of festive concerts, remains one of the highlights of the season.

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Sweden did rather let the side down this year by bringing some dreaded folk music to the otherwise classical party - but all was forgiven in a lovely concert on BBC Radio Three from the famous Frauenkirche in Dresden, destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945 and rebuilt after the reunification of Germany. Anyone who doesn't love Poulenc's Quatre Motets Pour Le Temps De Noel must either hate music, Christmas, or both.

Sunday Feature, also on Radio Three, was an equally compelling anthology on the theme of ice, albeit slightly spoiled by some obligatory nagging about climate change. Poets read works inspired by midwinter; artists explained the process of painting with ice; others described their sojourns in Antarctica, where the only smell is "penguins and kerosene" and the continual light in December feels oppressive "like being forced to be happy 24 hours a day".

Radio Four's Beyond Belief offered a discussion on an even more familiar theme - the pagan origins of Christmas.

It's been done many times before, but that's not a complaint, because not everyone knows why reindeer and mistletoe are so important to a festival that we're inclined to think of as Christian - and there can't be anything more seasonally cosy than druids and vicars sitting around a table in a radio studio chuckling amiably over how much their celebrations have in common.

The science behind the winter solstice was the focus of The Pat Kenny Show, surely Irish radio's most consistently impressive current affairs show. Pat's enthusiasm for science is one of his great assets as a broadcaster, not least because most of his rivals tend to come more from an arts and humanities background. He should draw on it more.

There wasn't much paganism in the last edition before the holiday of Sunday With Miriam, which was devoted to Micheal O Muircheartaigh memories of his childhood Christmases in Kerry in the 1930s. "We didn't have a Christmas tree, they were not popular at that time, they weren't in fashion around Dun Sion, as far as I remember."

He recalled his parents going to Dingle to "bring home the Christmas", returning with raisin cakes, colourful candles, and jam in earthenware jars, before heading on a horse and cart to first Mass on the day itself. Miriam O'Callaghan sounded enthralled - as well she might; O Muircheartaigh has few peers when it comes to painting vivid word pictures.

She wondered how his nostalgia might sound to current generations, primed to decry the Ireland of the past as wretched.

His answer was to welcome change when it makes things better whilst not rejecting what was good, adding with a twinkle: "I'd still prefer going by horse to Mass on Christmas mornings." The whole show was a delight.

Sunday Independent

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