19 Dec 2023

Emile Donovan's Christmas carol extravaganza

From Nights, 9:35 pm on 19 December 2023

Nights host Emile Donovan counts down his favourites - and least favourites - from the grand tradition of Christmas carols.

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There shall be no Mariah Carey or Wham! here. Photo: Commons

It’s the 1st of November. You’re sauntering down the aisle at the local Pak ‘N’ Save, trying to remember what ingredients you need for a tabbouleh salad, jaundiced legs seeing natural light for the first time after months of hibernation.  

You’re feeling good, confident. Things are looking up.  

But then you hear it. Your ears prick up.  

I don’t want a lot for Christmas 

There’s just one thing I need. 

I don’t care about the presents  

Underneath the Christmas tree 

Fight or flight kicks in. You look around - confused, adrenalised, skittish, like a cat stuck in an aviary.  

I just want you for my own 

More than you could ever know 

Make my wish come true 

All I want for Christmas is you.  

You break into a cold sweat, quickly replaced by burning rage.  

Already?? ALREADY?? 


A fruit fly will live its entire rich, full life before the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve. I have to be plagued by Mariah and Wham and Michael Freakin’ Bublé’s godforsaken Christmas album for SEVEN WEEKS? Give me Rick Astley. Give me Old Town Road. Please, please. Anything but this.  

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Santa Claus present pop superstar Mariah Carey with a framed certificate honoring her induction into the 2023 Library of Congress National Recording Registry for "All I Want for Christmas is You," December 14, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

American songstress Mariah Carey, Emile Donovan's worst nightmare. Photo: CC Public domain / Library of Congress / Shawn Miller

I have a complicated relationship with Christmas music. You probably do too.  

The Pavlovian response to it is positive, of course - Christmas music means holidays, presents, beaches, ham, wine, pavlova, ham, pine trees, hay fever, ham.  

But it’s also annoying. I like being jolly - but I like my jollity to evolve and develop organically, over time, propelled by its own life force, like a Yuletide democratic revolution.  

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Christmas music is forced jollity. All those relentlessly positive vibes, those chirpy tunes, those earworms. Oftentimes they seem designed more for supermarket aisles than eardrums.  

No thanks. I’m a traditionalist. What gets me in the mood is the carols. 

There are reasons for this. Much of my time at primary school was spent in the Christchurch Cathedral as a boy chorister.  

A framed picture of Emile as a young boy. He is wearing red velvet church robes and smiling at the camera.

Emile Donovan in his best cathedral chorister robes. Photo: Supplied

When you’re a boy chorister, Christmas is like the Super Bowl. Lots of pressure, lots of expectation, performing for mildly intoxicated adults who only tune in once or twice a year.  

It sucked, sometimes: on Christmas Day we’d sing two services, one in the morning, one in the evening, which meant leaving Christmas lunch just as the adults were starting to get fun.  

The only way to process it is to get into it - and so I, like just about anyone who’s sung in choirs, developed my own favourites - and least favourites - of the carol variety. 

Some of these may shock. Some may appall. All are up for debate.  

(A side-note: while I am not religious, these carols are all in the Anglican church canon, because Christchurch Cathedral is an Anglican church. Yes, there are many wonderful Christmas songs from other countries and traditions and cultures. I am not well-versed in these, and it would be misleading of me to pretend I am. But I would love to hear your favourites, so if you’ve any suggestions, please email them to me! I will listen to them all, because I’m a loser like that [and in many other ways too]).  

The Dishonourable Mentions

Away in a Manger 

Hot trash.

A plodding, childish ditty which has somehow become ubiquitous despite having all the musical sophistication of a nineteenth-century Baby Shark. Has also been co-opted as a chant by fans of the scurrilous West Ham United football team. Make it go away.  

The Little Drummer Boy 

This carol’s weirdly menacing tune and driving percussion lend it a strangely cultlike feel. Wouldn’t seem out of place soundtracking a cannibalism scene in “Yellowjackets”. Redeemed somewhat by Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s 1977 rendition (and the Dandy Warhols’ psychedelic interpretation) but still a strange and creepy carol.  

The Twelve Days of Christmas 

Seems like a fun idea, until you get to number four. A choral insight into the life of Sisyphus. 

Emile Donovan in his element

"I like being jolly - but I like my jollity to evolve and develop organically, over time, propelled by its own life force, like a Yuletide democratic revolution," Emile Donovan says of Christmas music. Photo: supplied

The Honourable Mentions 

Once in Royal David’s City 

A middle-of-the-road carol which has, in my opinion, gained prominence largely due to its utility in identifying the silverback/alpha treble (the first verse is sung by a solo boy or woman, a capella - a prestigious and high-pressure role). Fine, recognisable, but not quite top-shelf. I am also resentful as I didn’t get the solo back in 2004 (darn you, Barnaby Coxon!).  

Ding Dong Merrily on High 

A great chorus, no doubt about it, and absolutely adrenalising to sing, but a little too jovial for my liking. One boy can only hosannah in excelsis so much. 

Carol of the Bells 

A stone-cold banger with a tune based on a Ukrainian folk song. This one suffers, in my view, from being so wonderfully tense and dramatic, it feels kind of… menacing? Do you know what I mean? Like it’d be more at home in a John Woo movie right before a climactic gun-fu battle, slow-motion shots of a fountain, seagulls flying in front of the camera, all that jazz.  


Great piece of music though, no doubt about it. 

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing 

Look, it’s a show-stopper, but in my view you’re either a Hark the Herald person, or an O Come All Ye Faithful person. Yes, you can have both I suppose, there’s no rule against it. Am I being petty and arbitrary? Yes, yes I am, but I’m the one writing this whimsical piece and there’s nothing you can do about it.  

Needless to say, I’m an O Come All Ye Faithful man.  


The Christmas Hipster’s Choices (not for massed voice)  

A Spotless Rose 

A beautiful, sophisticated, sometimes atonal carol by the British composer Herbert Howells - took me a while to get into Howells because some of his stuff sounds like banshees discussing advanced trigonometry at a Grateful Dead concert, but this is a superb carol that takes you on a musical journey and ends on a sweet, ethereal resolution.  

Masters in this Hall 

Party-time! This carol, based on a French dance tune, is lively, musically dark, and - crucially - SHORT. Great fun to sing, great for carol services because you get out the door a couple of minutes earlier than you otherwise would, boxes ticked all over the place.  

Adam Lay Ybounden 

Another short one, this piece of music - the sole piece written by the organist and choirmaster Boris Ord - is a delightful, complex interweaving of soaring melodies, based on a text from the 15th century. Huge fan.  

In Dulci Jubilo 

A truly lovely piece - delicate, unrushed, sweet and sentimental. I don’t have anything funny to say about this because it’s beautiful to sing, beautiful to listen to, especially in the hands of a skilled conductor. Oh! That’s something interesting I’ll add - a conductor can really make-or-break this piece, if you ask me. You’ve got to let the pauses hang.  


The Mount Rushmore of Carols

O Holy Night 

A sweet, melodic piece that takes you on a proper musical journey. The minor key switch-up into the ‘fall on your knees/o hear the angel voices’ part of the song resolves sumptuously into a triumphant ‘o night divine’. Give it to me, pump it into my veins, I will never get sick of it.  

The First Nowell 

Great massed-voice carols and hymns have a lot in common with great drinking songs: stirring, easy-to-remember melodies, simple lyrics, and dripping with adult sentimentality. The First Nowell - no, it’s NOT Noël, it’s Cornish not French - ticks all those boxes, and sounds great belted out by 500 people.  

O Come All Ye Faithful 

The O.G., the “Sweet Caroline” of Christmas carols. Yeah, maybe it’s overexposed, but hey - everyone knows it, and deep down everybody loves it.  

It’s got everything: simplicity, memorability, an alternative title which is Latin, and probably the best descant in existence (a descant - the soaring, ornamented change-up of the melody in the final chorus - is the choral equivalent of a guitar solo).  

Belt out that chorus, drink it in, swim in it. This wins bonus points for, generally, wrapping up a service, because there’s nothing I admire more than leaving on a high (I am aware of the irony of that sentence coming 1200 words into this piece).  

Emile Donovan will be hosting Nights on RNZ National from mid-January 2024.