Sometimes we put genius artists on a pedestal. We think that their lives must have been significantly different from ours. But is this really true? BBC Music Magazine examines what some of the world’s most famous composers were doing for Christmas through their own letters.

Music is, naturally, an important part of Christmas, but did the composers themselves give a figgy pudding about the festive season? JS Bach would no doubt have been overworked writing cantatas in Leipzig (and clearly had no time to jot down his memories) while Beethoven all but ignored many a religious festival. However, there were several that did mention Christmas in letters and diaries and we’ve dug up the most colourful and memorable. So did Christmas Eve find Mahler scribbling symphonies? What did Elgar get up to between lashings of brandy? And what was on Mendelssohn’s shopping list? To find out, charge your glass with mulled wine and read on to discover the Christmas musings of music’s ‘Scrooges’ and ‘Santas’.


In November 1843, Mendelssohn (pictured above, looking very festive) moved to Berlin to take up the post of Generalmusikdirector and direct the choir at Berlin Cathedral. Settled into a new home, he celebrated Christmas with his extended family – his wife Cécile and their five children were joined by his brother Paul and his sister Fanny. And Mendelssohn didn’t forget to write to his sister Rebecka, who was in Italy.


23 December 1843


Today is the eve of Christmas Eve, and I will spend it in talking to you, my dear little sister. Our purchases are made, and the arrangements completed. The pair of little pictures which I have been too busy to finish cannot be touched by candlelight, so this is the time for a chat. If only I could have one with you in reality! Christmas Eve is to be kept at our home. The candles are just being put into the chandeliers in the blue room, where the Christmas tree is to stand tomorrow. […] On Christmas Day I have for the first time to conduct the music in the cathedral with orchestra; there is to be a new psalm of mine, ‘To our Salvation’ from Handel’s Messiah, a couple more new trifles of mine, and some chorales with trombone. […] I must say between ourselves that so far I do not expect much from it, but do not tell anybody!

Can you guess who this drawing represents?

Or this one?