Sunday 20 December 2015

Sunday Christmas Carols




To the 12th Century St James’s Church, of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem, as is my wont, walking though the light winds of an oddly balmy December day. The orchestra and choir of former years, all professional musicians, were elsewhere. They had graced us in previous times only because of their friendship with the organist, who in her earlier long career had taught many of them at the Royal College of Music. Now we have been thrown onto our own devices, thought the noble lady herself walked from her house to play the organ for this day only, the rest of the year the organ being played by someone else.

Ritual, of course, depends on repetition, the desire which makes young children beg for entertainments “Again, again” and laugh as if at the first time to rhymes and stories: desire that is of like comfort to the elderly. The love of the old favourite Carols should be easy to indulge, particularly because Christmas Sunday is the one service nominal Christians attend, so any carol will hardly be repeated very often. However, such verities offend true music connoisseurs, who sneer at songs that become popular, and intend to introduce the congregation to new material, more challenging and more relevant to the modern age. Un-named persons chose these new pieces with musicological verve, with mixed results.

Older congregants grew up with the old Carols, and know how to sing them. Few younger worshippers have learnt any, but well constructed songs with good words are easily picked up, and are familiar via televised carol services. About 20 Carols have achieved high recognition, and breach the agnostic barrier, making even apostates break into song. Many are in old or oldish English, which is often Victorian English looking over the shoulder at the Middle Ages, but redeemed by a love of the sparkling phrase, and the grandeur and majesty of the King James Bible, that apotheosis of devout declamation.

The more recent stuff has all the drama of a company report. The three executives wish to let it be known that a child has been born somewhere of low socio-economic status, and not properly registered, so the following actions will be taken, going forward. Form A is for legal births, Form B for births out of wedlock, Form C for parthenogenesis (attributed).

Even the Churchwardens, whom I know to be persons of kindly Christian dispostion, were spitting blood.  Carol 1 “A great and mighty wonder” came in for particular venom.  “Never again” one vowed later, over mulled wine. I myself had lost the will to live as it staggered about at funereal place, and even normally polite young girls nudged their grandmothers at the couplet: “rejoice, ye vales and mountains/ ye oceans, clap your hands”. It was a mumble, not a Carol, and left the Congregation in a confused and dissatisfied mood. 

Worse was to come. The original design of the service included so much that was dire and unsingable that an attempt was made by a kindly deputation to put in some traditional carols. This was turned down, so in a typically British compromise, several random verses were omitted from many carols, by giving verse numbers relating to a Carol book without verse numbers. This was intended to speed things up, but involved singers counting verses in unfamiliar carols whilst trying to pick up the tune, if any. One note said “omit 3,4,5,8, (and then had a blank, under which there a clear but spectral 9)”. The carol in question “This is the Truth” had 9 verses, so it was a finely judged question as to whether it might not have been better to have omitted it entirely. The ninth verse ended on the immortal phrase “and thus I close my Christmas song” so I could understand why persons of taste wanted this verse omitted, but not why their entreaties had been turned down.

Not everyone had read these notes. “Once in Royal David’s City” was once the centrepiece of our little service, with a proper soloist singing the first verse. The cryptic warning “verse 1 solo; omit V3) proved a challenge. What might have been a solo progressed into an uncertain gaggle of women’s voices, since the congregation had a vague folk memory that the women used to do one verse, the men another. Frankly, things never properly recovered. One later carol included the leaden phrase “teach us to resemble thee” to which one could only answer “but if that vague approximation proves too taxing, don’t worry about it too much”.

On a brighter note, none of the lessons were read by children, so though grandparents were denied the indulgent celebration of the uses of literacy, at least the cadences scanned properly, and the words carried meaning.

During this travail we all knew that help was at hand, not of the Divine sort (though there were intimations of immortality when the winter sunlight suddenly illuminated the white interior bathing everyone in redemptive clarity) but in the final, familiar and majestic “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” which allows three verses of yelling, the last at the very highest volume with imagined trumpeters at the four corners. The first two verses put a smile on everyone’s faces and then, just as they were ready to raise high the roofbeams, the organist stopped. Not dead. Just stopped. Like the fabled Macondo in which villagers have lost their memories for words, we have all lost our ability to count. It was a Very British Problem. Should we all sing the last verse unaccompanied, or would that shame the organist? Should one give a nervous cough?  There was a long pause, redolent with pre-orgasmic disappointment. The priest judged it the correct time to give a blessing, the unperturbed organist broke into a cheerful organ voluntary, which was the cue for mulled wine and a muttered post mortem.

Next year the Carols, the Churchwarden promised, will be familiar and within the singing range of the common folk. But the sun shone in on the constant generations, and nothing is lost out of nature, although everything is altered: faces, mannerisms and hairlines transmitted, pew by pew, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.


  1. We gave up Radio 3 because we were utterly fed up with bozos choosing music that would challenge us, meaning bore and repel us. We make do with CDs and Classic FM, though I'll only listen to the latter at times when the risks of hearing adverts, or oily disc jockey voices, are minimised. It's the DJs' ingratiating manner that I can't bear.

    It's interesting that people who once might have had second thoughts about going to church on ideological grounds (do I really believe this stuff?) might now decline to attend on aesthetic grounds - the music so joyless, the English so local authority. If I were a Christian I suppose I might suspect the Devil's hand in all this.

    I read Mark's gospel at Christmas last year; it has the merit of omitting all the nativity nonsense. It's quite a decent read. This year I thought I might look up the current scholarly view on which of Paul's epistles were actually written by Paul, and read them. Meantime I shall enjoy the proper carols which my beloved sings around the house. I even join in.

    1. I am a Christian and I strongly suspect the devil's hand in this. He gets a real kick out of making churches ridiculous. Beauty and truth are close cousins.

    2. Although I must admit I share his mirth when a bunch of unbelievers ape a better civilization.

  2. Oh dear, I forgot the essential part of my comment. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Dr T, and a happy new year.

  3. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your beloved songstress