When Santa comes to town

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

December has brought a festive atmosphere to the streets of Cairo. In Egypt everybody celebrates the New Year, and although the Christmas rush is not as intense, there are some signs of the arrival of Santa Claus nonetheless. Christmas trees are sold, plastic mistletoes and colorful garlands adorn shop windows, and red ribbons can be seen wrapped around objects for sale. Hardly enough for lovers of the season, but thankfully we have music to top it all up. Many concert halls in Cairo and Alexandria and a few churches serve as settings for Christmas celebrations enjoyed by all Egyptians, regardless of religious background; and music is season’s greatest means of conveyance past Christian thresholds.

Christmas carols make up the best known music associated with Christmas. Their history goes back to the 12th century, St. Francis of Assisi’s reforms, and the joyous spirit that carols brought to the masses whose enjoyment had hitherto been restricted to solemn and austere hymns, mainly by the fourth century Saint Ambrose (Archbishop of Milan) to whom we attribute the well-known Come, Redeemer of Nations, or else Of the Father’s love begotten by Aurelius Prudentius (the Spanish poet).

St. Francis is credited with writing a known Psalmus in Nativitate, a Latin Christmas hymn in honour of the Nativity. Even though there is no evidence to suggest that St. Francis wrote in Italian, Italy is generally considered the true birthplace of Christmas carols which gained an immediate popularity in Spain and France. In the 14th century Germany, Dominican mystics followed in St. Francis’ footsteps, with the work mainly of John Eckhardt, John Tauler, and Blessed Henry Suso. The latter authored In dulci jubilo. known in English as In Sweetest Rejoicing or Good Christian Men, Rejoice.

The tradition of singing Christmas suffered decline during the Reformation (16th and 17th centuries), especially in countries dominated by the Protestant church. But caroling re- emerged in England at the beginning of the 18th century. One of the most popular carols Joy to the World written by Isaac Watts was first published in 1719. The 19th century brought Stille Nacht (Silent Night) written in 1818 by the German priest, Father Joseph Mohr, and O Holy Night composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to the French poem Minuit, chr…tiens, to name but two of the best known.

Perhaps as St. Francis had hoped, in the 19th and 20th centuries many carols finally began to add a truly joyful scent to the Christmas mood. Let us not forget that Christmas carols are not only about religious themes. Jingle Bells for example is a winter song, yet it is often sung around Christmas time all around the globe.

Dozens of beautiful carols will be performed in the next few weeks on many Cairo and Alexandria stages. December is a month of a very high activity among Egyptian artists. Artists living in Egypt, joined by Egyptian singers living abroad, get together to celebrate Christmas with their audiences. This is the time of year when choirs and soloists show off their repertoires, and this year’s Christmas is unique because many artists are also celebrating their special anniversaries.

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The Cairo Symphony Orchestra and Cairo Celebration Choir, conducted by Nayer Nagui, will perform at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall on 12 Dec, celebrating the choir’s 10th anniversary. The concert will bring together the most renowned soloists from the Egyptian music scene: Amira Selim, Dalia Farouk, Dina Iskandar, Iman Moustafa, Jackeline Rafik, Mona Rafla, Georges Wanis, Sobhi Bideir, Elhamy Amin and Reda El Wakil. Another important anniversary is announced by Nevine Allouba and her Vocal Family celebrating the 20th Anniversary Christmas Concert. Performed at the Cairo Opera House Small Hall on Christmas Eve (24 Dec), the concert will include a number of talented young singers and host a guest artist, Ashraf Sewailam.

Several other Christmas concerts will be performed by many artists and groups in various settings. On 18 Dec, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will hold a Christmas Concert by the BA Orchestra, the BA Choir and singers, conducted by Nayer Nagui and choir master Haig Avakian. On 20 Dec at the Cairo Opera House Small Hall Gala El Hadidi will be accompanied by pianist David Hales.

For its part the St. Mark Choir is inviting us to several performances in Cairo and Alexandria, starting with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 19 Dec — and all the way through a series of concerts in December and first days of January. El Refak Choir’s Christmas Concert will take place at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 23 Dec and will be also a celebration of the choir’s 10th Anniversary. On the 25th, the Small Hall will host Hassan Sharara (violin) and Emad Hamdy (guitar) with soprano Christine Khalil, promising the most famous Christmas songs.

The Cairo Opera House Small Hall will also host Osiris Singers (stating to sing bel canto ) on 2 January (and at El Sawy Cultural Wheel on 28 Dec).

One should remember that there is more, musically, to Christmas than carols, however. And thankfully there are many music pieces incorporating religious themes presented during this time. No doubt one of the best is Haydn’s masterpiece The Creation, based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost and partially on the first book of Genesis. “I was never so devout as when I was at work on The Creation ; I fell on my knees each day and begged God to give me the strength to finish the work,” the composer is known to have remarked.

Indeed The Creation for three soloists (representing Gabriel — soprano, Uriel — tenor, and Raphael — bass) four part chorus and orchestra is a monumental work in which powerful music depicts God’s creation of the world. Haydn demonstrates a palette of orchestral colours, beautiful harmonies, and melodic creativity while the unity of the elements he maintains serves as a showcase for operatic powers.

The Cairo Choral Society is currently performing Haydn’s Creation, conducted by John Baboukis, with soloists Georges Wanis, Ashraf Sewailam and Clare Dawson and their last announced performance will take place on 11 Dec at the Ewart Hall (AUC, Tahrir Campus).

Last but not least is yet another signature of the season: Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. The Cairo Ballet Company and Cairo Opera Orchestra will perform the ballet on several evenings at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall, starting on 24 Dec.

Walking the streets of Cairo, thinking about the fir trees, decorations and Christmas fragrances reigning all around the world, one cannot help looking for a fulfillment in music, the one fraction of the beautiful feast that remains fully apparent in Cairo, and is fortunately powerful enough to bring delight to listeners and artists alike.

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