In the Attic: Christmas Hymns & Carols

In 1946 Robert Shaw and his RCA Victor Chorale released a Christmas album. In those days an album was really an album, like a photo album with pages that you mounted photos on: You could only fit three or four minutes of sound on one side of a 78 rpm record, so they packaged a bound volume of three to six heavy envelopes with records inside.

By the time I came along, the long-playing record had changed all that, and Christmas Hymns and Carols had been converted to a 33.3 rpm LP. That was what Mom hauled out on the day after Thanksgiving every year, and we knew the Christmas season had begun as soon as the Chorale belted out, “Joy to the World, the Lord has come …!”

It’s a remarkable performance, completely a capella. Shaw’s vocal arrangements are absolutely transcendental, and as soon as I hear the familiar recording again, I can smell the pine needles from the tree and the warm sugar cookies fresh from the oven, and I feel the comfort of artificial heat fending off the wintry weather outside, and I see the small but cozy living room and the bubble lights sparkling away.

Robert Shaw and Christmas go together in my mind, sure as “Joy to the World” is followed by “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and then “Angels We Have Heard On High,” etc. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Christmas albums out there, but this — and Christmas Hymns and Carols Volume II a few years later — is the greatest of all time, in my humble opinion.

As much as I love the LP, my most cherished Christmas possessions are the Shaw albums in their original format, which I found (and transferred to digital) a few years back in such great condition that a casual listener might not realize the disc was rotating at 78 rpm. At least once a year I carefully take the fragile albums off the shelf and give the heavy old records a spin on the turntable.

A few days ago a friend asked on social media whether we think it’s OK to play Christmas music “early” — he had broken his tradition and listened to a couple versions of “Mary Did You Know” — and my mind immediately went to the Robert Shaw Chorale. My reply was:

“Personally, I would prefer a world where you can sing ‘Joy to the world, the savior lives … let heaven and nature sing’ all year-round. I’d love an oldies station where “Mary Did You Know” is folded into the mix from time to time.”

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