Event review: Croydon Community Choir’s Midwinter Music

By - Friday 16th December, 2016

How we held a pagan midwinter-fest in Matthews Yard

Photo by Rob Wilson Jr at Fluid4Sight, used with permission. 

It’s no coincidence that Croydon started seriously getting its act together around 2013. That was the year we held our first Heritage Festival. I found myself thinking about this as I joined a small group of community singers in Matthews Yard at 7:00pm on Monday 5th December, and making some interesting connections.

I believe that the regenerative effect of Croydon’s heritage has been greatly underestimated. I’m not suggesting that the festival’s organisers knew this would happen. But discovering who you really are is a journey of power: it changes you, strengthens you and grows in you a core of transformational courage which enables you to act. This is as true of places as it is of people.

(My apologies for this babble of lifecoach-ery. We should beware of such. ‘Feeling the fear and doing it anyway’ can be most unwise. Our fears are sometimes a much-needed voice of caution. Just because you have a dream doesn’t mean that you should borrow money, either: a friend of a friend started a business (‘anything is possible!’) and finished up sleeping in his car.)

A deep Croydonian voice is speaking

But still, the power of personal authenticity is genuine. Croydon is becoming more authentic, and as a result it’s more powerful, less and less a victim of its detractors and ready to rebut them with confidence. (At the same time, it’s also becoming less authentic: more manicured, much more expensive and unsupportive to its not-so-well-heeled residents. The PR manual on investors’ community values whilst more and more of us can’t make the rent fails to convince). Nevertheless, a deep Croydonian voice is speaking, and real Croydonians are acting: founding a saffron farm to grow our namesake flower once more, planting Cr’oyster mushrooms, setting gardens amidst concrete, running festivals of drama and music and dance, making things, teaching things, starting community newspapers, building hubs, creating art. This place is coming alive.

Photo by Fluid4sight, used with permission.

And it arises from taking pride in where we come from. Sixties monstrosity, indeed! Croindene (or sometimes Croh-Denu, valley of the crocus) existed in Roman times and is recorded in the Domesday book. Celebrating our history gives us self-belief and lets us recover our dignity. It’s demonstrated in our saffron farm, among the mushroom growers and dancers, with the wassailers who planted an orchard in Addiscombe Railway Park in January this year and blessed it with an ancient pagan rite. And I felt it again in this midwinter singing.

The tasteless Coca Cola truck, come to wish us gas and type two diabetes

Although I love a festive carol, the state religion’s a funny thing, a wobbly splicing of the legend of a middle-eastern Bronze Age deity onto a cold north European country which never really worked. Of course, they’re quick to tell us that the alternative is to worship the shops, but that’s just as shaky: since when were the tasteless Coca Cola truck, come to wish us a festive season of gas and type two diabetes, or the grimly manipulative John Lewis ad our seasonal waymarkers? Our real midwinter festival is Yule, which falls around the shortest day of the year, the solstice (although the two celebrations are not the same), marking our passage through darkness towards the return of the sun.

Yule’s about hope and renewal, cheering and sustaining before thermals and fleeces and central heating did the job, back when we knew that the northern midwinter could kill us. This seasonal gathering at Matthews Yard, described on Facebook as ‘wonderful worldsong to warm the winter night‘, did just that.

Our singing ability varied, but this didn’t deter us

It was a small affair: eighteen of us gathered in a circle. I wished there could have been more. Some were members of Croydon Community Choir whilst others had just dropped by. Singing ability varied. None of which deterred Katie Rose and Catherine Pestano, both local musicians and leaders of the choir, who coached and conducted us with aplomb as we successfully sang three songs (all of them in parts or at least as rounds) within an hour and a half.

Katie is a well-known singer, and I’m aware from her other musical activities in Croydon that she believes strongly in the uplifting, unifying and even nurturing power of song. She’s onto something here, and I’d add the word ‘cathartic’: singing can help us recover from bad experiences and release painful feelings. Watching and listening as she encouraged and instructed us, it came to me not for the first time that there’s something shamanic about Katie. And here her vision, shared with Catherine, of song for Croydon’s darkest days, was in a small way realised.

The music was lovely: ‘In the dark of the year’ about survival and renewal, ‘Apple tree wassail’ about the traditional blessing of apple trees for the coming year’s harvest, and ‘Gaudete! Christus est natus’ an inaccurate interjection from the pushy new kid on the block. But singing in Latin is always kinda fun. And the mulled cider was delicious.

It was a gladdening community occasion. Croydon’s getting good at this. A happy and peaceful Yuletide to all Croydonians.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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