Benozzo Gozzoli: The Journey of the Magi
Where would we be at Christmas without the Early Renaissance? Raphael is fine for theology, but if you're dealing with a baby in a crib, you want simplicity: camels, kings, gold that looks like gold. Card manufacturers should go down on bended knee before Benozzo Gozzoli.
In 1459, Benozzo started work on the ultimate Christmas card, even if it took the form of a mural in Cosimo de' Medici's new palace. Its subject was The Journey of the Magi. The Three Wise Men wend their gorgeous way from wall to wall through a landscape that looks oddly Tuscan, for the reason that it is. Their faces, too, are familiar: Balthasar and Melchior are the Emperor of Byzantium and Patriarch of Constantinople respectively, both having been at the Council of Florence 20 years before. This political coup had sealed Medicean power: somewhere in the kings' procession are Cosimo, Piero and Lorenzo, looking inscrutable. Like the Magi, the Medici had come from nowhere. Like them, too, they had gold, and lots of it. Benozzo's mural may look like a greetings card, but it is a card with an agenda.
So what? It is the most glorious evocation of the story of the Kings ever painted, and little known. For years, the mural cycle was hidden away in the office of the Florentine Prefecture. Even now it is hard to see: only 10 visitors are allowed at a time, and they are not encouraged to linger. The last time I went, visits had, in that Italian way, been suspended. So, see it if you can, then buy the cards. Happy Christmas!
"Gaudete" and Handel's Messiah
As a bookish child I was more interested in Victorian carols than cosy twaddle about donkeys and drummer boys. I loved "It came upon a midnight clear" – the stern warnings of strife and sin, the octave leap that felt so nice to sing. Then along came Steeleye Span with "Gaudete", a Mediaeval Latin carol published in 1582 and released as a single in 1973. I didn't understand the words. But there was something in Maddy Prior's sweet, supple voice and the rustic a capella refrain that hooked me. At the age of eight, I decided I'd been born several hundred years too late.
By the time I left college, I'd set my heart on a career in Early Music. Christmas became synonymous with touring: singing Josquin in Holland, Schütz in Denmark, Bach in France and Spain. Now I've been writing about music for as long as I performed it and L'enfance du Christ, Hänsel und Gretel and La bohème are seasonal fixtures. Still nothing compares to Handel's Messiah. As a singer, I thought I knew it inside out. As a listener, it still surprises me from the icy grandeur of the Overture to the last Amen. Strictly speaking, only Part 1 is fit for Christmas – the calm hush of "Comfort ye", the chill anticipation of "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth", the bustling urgency of "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion", the sudden starburst of the angels, the balmy Pastorale – but over-indulgence is forgivable with a work so sophisticated, wise and humane.
Darlene Love: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"
The greatest Christmas album of all time is, unquestionably, Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You. The fact that its auteur was raised a secular Jew shows that you don't have to be a devout Christian to get something from the Christmas spirit, and its contents Ω Christmas classics delivered with exuberant oomph by the stars from his stable, his trademark Wall of Sound production augmented by jingle bells and Jack Nitzsche's string arrangements Ω are enough to raise a smile from Scrooge himself. Lurking within its grooves, however, is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music ever committed to vinyl. The premise of missing a loved one at Christmas is hardly unfamiliar – Elvis Presley, Mud, Jona Lewie and The Darkness have all scored huge seasonal smashes with a similar theme – but "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" towers over all others. The Greenwich-Barry-Spector composition was originally intended for the producer's wife Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes, but it was determined that she was unable to convey quite the intensity of emotion that the song demanded. And, indeed, it's hard to imagine anyone cramming in as much soul as Darlene Love, stepping outside her role as lead singer of The Crystals, managed. To this day, if it doesn't bring a tear to your eye, you probably don't have a heart to break.
EastEnders Christmas Day
Most Christmas TV favourites may sing from the same, heartwarming carol sheet, but the show fundamental to my festive season involves scant genuine festivity and goodwill to absolutely no men. Truly, I can't imagine a 25 December without my over-serviced gut being further wrenched by a bumper portion of EastEnders.
The annual ratings-slayer first cemented its place in modern Christmas lore in 1986, when, in the stuff of clip-show history, chief cad "Dirty" Den Watts served wife Angie with divorce papers. Being a callow sort of three-year-old, I missed that small-screen event first time around but since then, my insistence on watching the doomy double episode has become an annual ritual of parental antagonism. And never has the Walford Woël disappointed, from paternity scandals over lunch to affair exposés around the Christmas tree and a little light murder in the post-prandial lull.
But what makes this bacchanal of bleakness such a Christmas cracker? You might surmise it's the gift of Schadenfreude: that it's nice to know that, however bad one's own celebrations get, they can't be any worse than those on Albert Square. But equally it can serve as a warped wish-fulfilment fantasy. Which is to say that, after the low-level angst of an afternoon of awkward relatives, arguments over how to carve the turkey et al, who isn't secretly yearning to experience the kind of ludicrously, liberatingly awful day which once resulted in Peggy Mitchell taking a baseball bat to the Queen Vic? No? OK, just me then.
Indeed, these days, I only ever watch EastEnders at this wonderful time of year, tuning back in every December to follow the tortuous, month-long build-up to the great plot unwrapping. So here's to philandering Kat, delinquent Lauren and dastardly Derek creating a perfect storm of un-cheer. And, as for some light relief? Well, there's always the prospect of Phil in a jauntily angled party hat.
At this time of year, some film buffs get teary-eyed over The Wizard of Oz, or Miracle on 34th Street, or Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life – a film far weirder and darker than its annual festive resurgence would lead you to think. My personal festive movie moment – for the sheer grace and mischief of its bah-humbuggery – is the scene in Joe Dante's just-reissued Gremlins (1984) in which the heroine, Kate (Phoebe Cates), explains why she doesn't like Christmas. "It was Christmas Eve, I was nine years old," she says, a quaver in her voice, as she remembers how she and her mom waited in vain for Dad to come home from work. "Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing …." The tension mounts, with composer Jerry Goldsmith laying an eerie minor-key "Silent Night" in the background. Then we find out just what Kate discovered up the chimney, and the story comes to an end with the deathless punchline: "And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus." The writer is Chris Columbus, of Mrs Doubtfire and Harry Potter fame; suffice to say his career never contained a darker moment.
"Every Christmas", noted the legendary dance critic Richard Buckle 40 years ago, "we are one Nutcracker nearer death". And in his provokingly Eeyore-ish way, he was right. For the past 60-odd years in Europe and America (but, oddly, not Russia) that ballet has been an unbudgeable end-of-year marker.
Coming late to dance, I arrived at my first Nutcracker with no filter of childhood memory to blur its outlines. What I saw, rather too plainly, was a first half that was all plot and no fantasy, and a second half that was all fantasy and no plot. Yet it may have been the effort of making those disparate elements cohere that pushed Tchaikovsky to explore sonority as he did, as a means of making supernatural events distinct from the everyday. The music of Nutcracker (all that remains of the 1892 original) is full of special effects, such as the use of a new instrument, the celeste, to accompany Sugar Plum. Others are less obvious: the wispy, windblown figurations in the Dance of the Snowflakes, and weird combinations of instruments (viola, trombone and tuba) that mark swoon-making moments when magic happens.
Since my first Nutcracker I have lost count of the versions I've seen: several sub-Freudian ones in which King Rat turns out to be the young heroine's father in disguise; Peter Wright's majestic production for the Royal Ballet, with a Dance of the Snowflakes based on notation smuggled out of Russia during the Revolution; Matthew Bourne's 1992 Nutcracker! whose first half takes place in a Dickensian orphanage, and Mark Morris's The Hard Nut of 1991, which offers gender-blind, barefoot Snowflakes – a veritable blizzard of them – each chucking fistfuls of fake snow as they leap. It's a giddying marriage of music and movement, matched only by Disney's Fantasia, which casts inanimate things such as mushrooms and autumn leaves under the spell of Tchaikovsky's genius. So, bring on the next new Nutcracker. And the next.