This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of our parish magazine:
I still remember vividly the complete shock I experienced one December at school around five years ago. I had volunteered to organise and run the whole school assembly on the last afternoon of term, immediately before breaking up for the Christmas holidays. A colleague had been taking violin lessons and I managed to persuade her to duet some Carols with me for the staff and children to sing along to. What could possibly go wrong? I chose well-known Carols with simple harmonies for her to play, I played the trickier twiddly bits, and I copied words onto acetates for display on the overhead projector. It never occurred to me for one moment that children today just wouldn’t know any Christmas Carols at all. Not even “Away in a Manger“. So there were we, Kirsten and I, stoically playing through all 98 verses of “While Shepherds Watched” with the staff reluctantly rumbling along in the distance and a bemused silence from 220 children. Much-loved Carols have never dragged on for so long, or in such misery.
“Once in Royal David’s City“, “O Little Town of Bethlehem“, “The Holly and the Ivy“, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” – these and oh so many more were the fabric of my childhood, teenage years and beyond. I remember fondly being a member of both the school orchestra and choir, so during the annual Carol Service, I and others like me had to flit (well, squeeze through narrow gaps) between the two performance areas at the front of St Nicholas’ Church Portishead. We played for the ‘regular’ carols which were sung by the congregation, and sang the ‘interesting’ carols in four part harmony. Staff and pupils were all willing conscripts to sing and play at these events. In the Sixth Form, 6 or 8 of us would go carolling door-to-door collecting for the Children’s Society, playing whatever instruments could be taken outside on cold evenings and singing in harmony. Christian Christmas music featured heavily each December at university too. As a young adult I remember ‘carols and mince pies’ evenings with friends, self-accompanied by recorders, a guitar and tambourine. There was mulled wine too, as I recall, which helped the less experienced singers amongst us to join in confidently. Then there was a lull in my public Christmas singing, before joining the congregation at St George’s, then St Margaret’s, and then St Margaret’s Choir. Surely everyone sang Christmas Carols routinely, every December? Apparently not. What happened? How have we managed to produce a generation that doesn’t know about Carolling?
And it’s not just a sad loss for our children’s musical heritage. Adults too are missing out. In recent years whilst out Carolling with Maggie’s in the pubs of Prestwich and Simister we often took requests. These included “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” and such like. Jolly Christmas songs they doubtless are; Carols they are not.
It’s not that I’m snobby or precious about only singing ‘worthy’ music at Christmas. I enjoy “So Here It Is, Merry Christmas” as much as the next person!
There is such variety available to us in traditional Christmas Carols, it seems a crying shame to deny them to our children in the interests of not offending those of other faiths – or none – at Christmas time.
For this reason I have been on a quiet mission during November and December these past few years to develop a love of traditional Christmas Carols in our Children’s Choir. Practices start early in November in order to be ready for their Nativity performance in December. We are blessed with confident and talented singers, so we are able to uphold the tradition of having a solo treble sing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City”. There is nothing quite like a choir of children’s voices breathily singing “Away in a Manger” in unison, and there really is joy in “Joy to the World“. A special treat for me this year will be going to the Bridgewater Hall for the Halle Christmas Carol Concert*, featuring Jennifer in the soprano section of the Halle Youth Choir. Naturally, I shall take my trusty copy of “100 Carols for Choirs” (as do many members of the audience) for joining in with the carols. Happy days!
*Update – these days I sing in Christmas Carol Concerts myself at the Bridgewater Hall with the Manchester Chorale:
- Classic Carols 19 December 2017 7.30pm
- Christmas Spectacular 20 December 2017 7.30pm
- Christmas Carol Singalong 24 December 2017 3.00pm
Naturally, there will also be plenty of traditional Carols at St Margaret’s Carol Service at 6pm on Sunday 17 December, St George’s Carol Service at 11.15am on 24 December, and the First Eucharist of Christmas at 11.30pm on 24 December.