Composing a “moderately festive” Australian Christmas carol for our times


Soon a new year dawns, 
And what have we learned? 
Have we cared for one another?
What comes next? 

It’s November, and once again I find myself in a reflective end-of-year state of mind (although my mind also tells me that this division of time is arbitrary, especially considering that our collective concept of time has been a blur since 2020).

Almost one year ago, I wrote a piece for CutCommon that reflected on the blur of COVID times. While re-reading those thoughts, I was transported back to the time when South Australia reopened our borders for the first time since the pandemic began.

I was struck by how significantly attitudes have changed. There is now no requirement beyond ‘personal responsibility’ to isolate when unwell, and the COVID-19 Disaster Payment is a thing of the past.

How is this demonstrating collective kindness and care?

Have we cared for one another?
What comes next? 

I’m not a public health professional, and I don’t have the answers.

What I do have are some notes and words I have written for my wonderful Adelaide Chamber Singers family, speaking to the commission brief of a new Australian Christmas carol. I’ve always wanted to write an Australian Christmas carol. But in this case, I felt very conflicted about ignoring the realities of the time we’re living in (although I am also a firm believer in the need for escapism). This is why the score is marked ‘Moderately Festive’!

When I began my research into what this carol could become, I came across an excellent article from Christmas 2021 in The Guardian by Melbourne writer Patrick Lenton titled ‘Australian Christmas songs ranked by how baffling they are to literally anyone else‘. Patrick created three categories to rank songs: the confusion rating, the Australian rating, and finally, the amount of birds. 

This is what eventually led me to the Mistletoebird. I was completely unaware that we had species of mistletoe that were native to Australia, but it’s true! We have 97 species, in fact, including the stunning Western Australian Christmas tree Nuytsia floribunda, which produces intensely bright yellow flowers during summer.

What intrigues me most about the native mistletoe plants is that they are generally described as only ‘semi-parasitic’, meaning that the benefits do go both ways, and the balanced presence of mistletoe, and by extension, mistletoebirds, indicates the health of an ecosystem. I’ve aimed to capture the spirit of the collective kindness of this ecosystem, while questioning the collective kindness of humans.

The kindness of the earth allows the trees to grow, 
Hosting mistletoe on their limbs. 
The berries, the birds, and seeds: 
Collective knowledge passes through the trees. 

Perhaps we just need to be more like the birds.

Hear the premiere of Mistletoebird when Adelaide Chamber Singers presents its Christmas program Morning Star in St Peter’s Cathedral, North Adelaide, 7pm November 25.

Mistletoebird by Rachel Bruerville was commissioned by Christie Anderson and the Adelaide Chamber Singers with the support of the Adelaide Chamber Singers Supporters Fund. The premiere of Mistletoebird will also be recorded for later online release.

Featured in this article are the composer’s original carol lyrics.

Rachel captured by Caellyen Bruerville. Mistletoe bird Paul Balfe, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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