• Andrew Cleaton

The Greatest Gift

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the first performance of my Christmas production, Messiah's Dawn. The following year saw the production and release of the studio album. In this season of Advent, I'm reflecting on the story behind the music and some of the thinking that went into my attempt to capture the wonder and mystery of Christmas in musical form.

Although Messiah's Dawn, in it's current form, received its public debut in 1999, it had started out as a much smaller collection of songs, readings and drama some nine years earlier...

Having been recently married, my wife, Tracey, and I were living in Leeds and were part of the music group at our local Parish Church, Christ Church in Upper Armley. I had just completed my Masters Degree in Music Technology at York University and, in the absence of regular work, suddenly found myself with plenty of time on my hands! It was probably around mid-November and the commercial machinery of the festive season was in full swing. Already tired of hearing the same few Christmas songs being played over and over again in shops, I began to set myself the challenge of writing a new song or carol. Various piano doodles were dismissed as being too complicated, too simple, too cheesy, too derivative. Until...

Taking a break from the keyboard, I headed into Leeds city centre to do some Christmas shopping. I clearly remember walking around one of the large shopping centres and feeling overwhelmed by the noise, the glitter and the throngs of people. The centre of this particular mall was taken up by a huge winter wonderland display full of snowy trees, life-size polar bears and ice-skating animatronic penguins. Canned music blasted out Slade. However, in one tiny corner was a nativity scene where traditional, carved wooden figures of kings and shepherds knelt around a manger. And from a tiny loudspeaker, hidden behind the stable scene, came the recorded sound of a baby's cry. I must admit, amidst the hustle and bustle of commerce, this little scene stopped me in my tracks. It seemed to be a perfect metaphor for what Christmas had become - the simple nativity engulfed by a tide of tinsel, tinny music and frivolity. Around me, legions of shoppers elbowed their way past each other. A few parents would stop briefly to point out the penguins to young children. But nobody paid any attention to the tiny figure of a baby on a bed of straw. "The world went rushing by, oblivious to the cry of one so tiny, one so helpless yet so great." The line just popped into my head and, rather than finish my shopping I went home, sat at the piano and wrote the song, "The Greatest Gift."

A virgin gave birth to a son two thousand years ago

A turning point in history but no-one seemed to know.

The world went rushing by, oblivious to the cry

Of one so tiny, so helpless yet so great.

A King born in a stable doesn't happen every day,

And royalty is never found in dirty rags and hay.

But the King of glory came, in poverty and shame,

To live and love, to suffer and to die.

God became a man, oh Christmas mystery!

The Saviour dwells with us, are we so blind we cannot see?

The frailty of humanity contains such perfect deity,

God's son - the greatest gift of all.

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