A cool, dark December night and the sight of a crowd gathering across Tom Quad at the Christ Church Cathedral entrance is a heart-warming thing. A single Christmas tree glistens from within the cloisters; I have my first real festive flutters of the season. Inside, the atmosphere is bubbly (though not fizzy, this is Oxford after all) and the audience fills every available nook and cranny. It is a spectacle in itself, and a treat for anyone who has never been to the Cathedral before, or like me, not for many years. I take a moment to contemplate why so many of us who don't believe are drawn to church at Christmas, and I conclude that it's a mixture of hope, sentimentality and curiosity. And of course the pull of a cracking concert. I realise that my hope for the evening is to be moved – elevated in some way. I am not a Christian, but every now and then I get a sudden sense of being connected to something greater than myself, and that something, somewhere is taking care of me, and of us all. So, you could say my expectations were high.
I had not seen Christ Church Cathedral Choir perform live before but I had heard many of their recordings, especially of Christmas music, and I knew that technically, these chaps were going to be first-class. But would they capture my heart (and soul, if I have one)? The evening began gently, opening with a Gregorian chant, cooing us then into the first carol 'In the Bleak Midwinter'. I nodded, and smiled. The singing was faultless, the piano confident and chirpy (the organists for the evening were William Wallace and Makoto James), and everything was as it should be. I wondered how the evening would progress. Would there be any unexpected treats? The problem with perfection is that you can't but crave for someone to have a little play about with it.
Dotted throughout the night were a number of readings, varying from the gospel of Luke to extracts from Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales. Our reader for the evening was Oliver Tobias whose voice was gravelly, commanding and as rich as an extra-mature luxury plum pudding.
By the interval (a fabulous opportunity to go exploring), I was satisfied, but not anywhere closer to reaching the enlightenment I had been hoping for. Something was missing, I felt. It was all very smooth and serious, but where was the spirit? This may be the equivalent of asking for tomato ketchup in a fine dining restaurant, but the Cathedral felt a little stark, considering the time of year – not a sprig of holly in sight, or a lowly bauble, or even a flicker of a candle. The lights were on full whack. Perhaps I am tacky, but if I'm having carols, I want atmosphere. I want cosy. I want joy!
That said, during the second half I was completely captivated when the choir performed 'Three Kings'. A deep and multilayered piece by Peter Cornelius, and new to me. For me, it made the night – and I can't quite say why. It wasn't remotely joyful, but it was beautiful. Perhaps that was my epiphany: that celebration can exist without elation.
The evening closed with a cheeky rendition of 'Jingle Bells'. Everyone had a little giggle. And thank God for that.