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Stars at Christmas

With Christmas in the air, we thought we’d ask three of our starriest choral alumni – Simon O’Neill,  Jonathan Lemalu, and Madeleine Pierard – to share their favourite carols, Christmas traditions and festive food with us!

Tenor Simon O’Neill, proudly from Ashburton, has just been nominated for two Grammy awards – for Best Choral Performance (in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and Best Engineered Album in Classical. Grammy Award-winning bass Jonathan Lemalu toured New Zealand earlier this year and is now back in London. Soprano Madeleine Pierard recently returned to NZ from the UK to take up a newly-created role at the University of Waikato as the Dame Malvina Major Chair in Opera.

They are here to help us get into the Christmas spirit:


Madeleine Pierard

Favourite Christmas carol:

Christmas carols are what I have always turned to in those dark, cold London winters to create a nostalgic sense of ‘Hygge’. Trees go up early, fairy lights are on and the Carols album from the Choir of Kings College Cambridge is on repeat. I have many favourite carols – a few are the Coventry Carol, ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ and ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, but my middle daughter Eleanor insists on a rendition of ‘Away in a Manger’ every single night of the year, so I think that one is my absolute favourite. I don’t think I could cope ad nauseam with anything less.

Christmas traditions:

I have different traditions for each hemisphere. In Aotearoa, Christmas is the whole family gathering under the avocado tree at Mum and Dad’s, eating a lot, drinking gin and listening to Django Rheinhardt and Stephane Grappelli records. London is pretty magical at Yuletide. In the northern hemisphere, you become acutely aware of the absolute necessity for the festival of Christmas to break up the long, cold winters. Apart from the music, lights are the key element of this, giving us hope and joy in the midst of darkness. In London, we started a family tradition of attending Christmas at Kew, which is a magical night walk with genius light installations, plenty of mulled wine, beautiful music, a Victorian fairground and fabulous artisan food stalls. Unlike the ‘Winter Wonderland’ in Hyde Park, which is always heaving, Kew Christmas has controlled and staggered entry, even before Covid times, which makes it much more pleasant. Nevertheless, last year’s was cancelled of course, which I think the children found harder than any of the other repeated disappointments of 2020/2021.

Favourite food/drink at Christmas:

Basically all of my memory associations are food-focused and of course Christmas is a natural highlight. My mother’s Christmas baking has always been staggeringly good. Walnut crescents, panforte, apricot balls… to name a few. Her Christmas mince pies are amazing – the mincemeat is unlike any other I’ve had and is made without sugar but plenty of brandy. To me, it is more reminiscent of what a medieval Christmas delicacy might have tasted like and far less sickly than the majority of Christmas mince pies out there. You can find the recipe here

Of course, cake always comes in to it. I know loads of people can’t stand Christmas cake but I LOVE it. I’ve been a ‘caker’ for a long time and every time I’ve made wedding cakes and tried multiple recipes, the Edmonds cookbook recipe is the one that wins every time, hands down – as long as it’s made with really quality ingredients and plenty of booze! I make these en masse as Christmas gifts with a marzipan cherub decoration and you can see how I do this here.


Jonathan Lemalu

Favourite Christmas carol:

I don’t have a favourite. I probably have a better chance of naming least favourites having come through cathedral music as a chorister. Perhaps not a carol, more a Christmas song like Let it Snow – something with Dean Martin and choir. The kind of old school music you’d find at Pottery Barn or Bed Bath & Beyond at Christmas time. The cheesier the better.

Christmas traditions:

Some kind of nine lessons and carols service, often at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London which is our “local” church. Definitely the kids opening Santa’s presents on Christmas morning.

Favourite food/drink at Christmas:

It’s a toss-up between really nice roasted vegetables and yorkshire pudding(s!!). Courtesy of M&S or Waitrose!! Maximum taste, minimal preparation is vital.


Simon O’Neill

Photo credit: Stephen Langdon

Favourite Christmas carol:

Hark the Herald Angels Sing – From the age of 10, I used to drive around Ashburton on the back of a wool truck with my fellow Ashburton Silver Band musicians playing carols.

Christmas traditions:

Our family putting up the Christmas tree with one of the kids on my shoulders placing the angel. They are getting bigger now….

Favourite food/drink at Christmas:

Christmas ham for me – much effort is put into preparing it and it lasts often well into the New Year. I love Christmas the most because after a year of international engagements I am lucky to home to Aotearoa, to paradise, to be with Carmel and our kids.

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