Though it was more than a half century ago, Ronald Clancy remembers one Christmas Eve as if it were yesterday – being put to bed soon after dinner by the nuns and then being awakened hours later to go to midnight mass. "The entire orphanage went," he says. "There was a big crèche on the altar. Balsam trees – the scent was fantastic."
What most amazed him, Mr. Clancy says, was the music. The soaring, melodic carols that washed over him as a 6-year-old boy at St. John's Orphanage Asylum in Philadelphia filled him with joy and hope, and – though he didn't know it at the time – cued the soundtrack for what would become his life's passion. For him Christmas music remains like Proust's madeleine, still able to trigger a flood of evocative memories.
"Music is what makes Christmas for me," says Clancy, for whom hearing the first carol of the season "is like opening up the curtain on a great play."
In the early 1980s, eager to broaden his exposure to Christmas music, he scoured the Philadelphia newspapers to see which churches had Christmas concerts. Attending as many as possible, he was rewarded with ancient, sacred carols rarely sung other than in church.
Clancy collected everything he could get his hands on: baroque concertos; classical works by composers such as Bach, Mendelssohn, and Schubert; and, of course, popular carols such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Frosty the Snowman," "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and "The Christmas Song" (also known as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"), all of which first became hits during his childhood.
Over the next few years he assembled many of his favorite works onto five cassettes – 147 recordings in all. He gave them to friends as holiday gifts and included a booklet that cataloged all the songs, composers, lyricists, and artists.
Again and again, he says, friends urged him, "Ron, you've really got to do something with this," until, in the late 1980s, he decided to dust off his long-dormant interest in writing and assemble a definitive collection of Christmas music and companion books.
While still working as an executive recruiter, Clancy spent much of the 1990s honing his selection of songs, researching their origins, learning about the creators, and securing – at great cost – the rights.
Unable to find a publisher, he took the task on himself and ran up more than $600,000 in debt. In 2000, he began selling boxed sets on his website christmasclassics.com.
The collection received rave reviews (one Christmas music expert called "American Christmas Classics" "one of the greatest assemblages of Christmas music ever done") and sold thousands of copies. But it was not nearly enough to erase his debt.
In 2003, Clancy declared bankruptcy. But he remained steadfastly up tempo about Christmas music, and in 2006 he finally connected with a publisher. Sterling Publishing Company repackaged "Best-Loved Christmas Carols" that year and followed, in 2008, with Clancy's previously unreleased "Sacred Christmas Music."
Some of his favorites are 16th-century English carols. "I think they're some of the best carols ever written," he says. "I really gravitate to them because they have a simple message, a message of joy, of celebrating the birth of Christ. They were written by common folks, from the heart."
So does the man who has devoted his life to Christmas music have a favorite carol? Clancy can't decide between "O Holy Night" – "the melody is fantastic, very enthralling" – and "O Little Town of Bethlehem," about which he says, "I just love the imagery of that song. I see the midnight sky and the stars, and it has that peaceful feel to it."