As we near the end of eighth week, a collective sigh of relief can be felt reverberating through the Oxford air. As snow lightly dusted our fair city and a wintry chill established itself as a permanent fixture, hats, gloves, and scarves became required garments in every student’s wardrobe ensemble, and all the holiday decorations I’ve been blathering about began to seem just a little more relevant.
And with the holidays here came an institution which I thought I was familiar with, but in fact turned out to feel quite foreign – the seemingly innocuous traditional Christmas carol service. Before any gasps escape from open mouths, let me hasten to assure you that I do indeed enjoy my fair share of Christmas tunes. But my expectations are more in the line of Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland, Frosty the Snowman, and that good old standby Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
I was surprised, upon opening the pamphlets provided at college and university carol services, that these were not the songs soon to pierce the air. While I certainly recognize hymns of the season, Hark! The Herald Angels and Little Town of Bethlehem and all, they don’t comprise the soundtrack of the holiday season as much back home as they do here.
This difference begged a related query, which I proceeded to pose to friends; were our holiday books, or films, in fact divergent as well? They assured me that they had indeed been introduced to the wonderfully corny delights of The Santa Clause and The Polar Express (though many were shocked to hear that the latter derived from a classic children’s book). And of course it goes both ways, as I can attest to viewings of Love, Actually and The Holiday.
But when I probed further, beyond the holiday tales of recent vintage, I found that there were what I considered gaping holes in the holiday canon. I grew up reading (and then viewing) How The Grinch Stole Christmas, a classic Dr. Seuss tale whether in book, cartoon, or feature film form. I’m used to marathons of A Christmas Story every December, with Ralphie’s quest ostensibly ageless. Going back further in creation date, Miracle on 34th Street and It’s A Wonderful Life (a personal favourite) elicited some recognition, but nowhere near the level I expected.
As in all other seasons, and on all other occasions, the carol service reminded me that there are assumptions that just can’t be made when one is speaking in an American tongue. The one consolation is that on both sides of the pond, one can feel free to wish everyone else (including those of you reading this), a happy holiday season and New Year.