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Songs that sparked a passion

Seasonal music intrigued Ronald Clancy so much, it provided the impetus to begin a collection.

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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.

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