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The threat to Christmas carols – and how to save them

Singing, like swimming, is natural, healthy and intensely pleasurable — but you have to try it to know

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

So, Christmas carols — they haven’t really gone away, but we don’t sing them as much as we used to. We aren’t, in general, much good at massed singing these days. Look around you at a church wedding when it’s time for a hymn and watch the congregation standing in mute embarrassment, the only sound coming from the organ and the choir (if there is one). That’s partly because hymns nowadays are known only to churchgoers, and they are in a minority; but it’s also inhibition.

Singing is like swimming — a natural, healthy and intensely pleasurable physical activity — but you have to try it, preferably when very young, to make this discovery. If, as an adult, you enjoy singing, you probably came to it as a child. Until the 1950s, you might well have sung round the piano with your family, but then the passive consumption of television put an end to that form of self-entertainment in the home. You could well have attended church, or been drafted into the local church choir — in the days before the British could afford foreign travel and exotic leisure activities, there wasn’t much to do in your spare time, trapped in our islands, and choir practice (if you didn’t fancy being a Boy Scout or Girl Guide) was probably the high point of your week if you were young and seeking after adventure.

By the 1960s that came to an end too. A couple of hours in a cold, damp church practising a Victorian anthem couldn’t compete with the intoxicating allure of forming a band and mimicking Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle numbers or that dangerous young Cliff Richard’s latest hit with a few of your schoolmates in the front room. But at least you were doing the singing yourself.

At school, your day started with morning assembly (remember those?) and, together with the whole school, you sang a hymn, or ‘Lord of the Dance’ if your music teacher had up-to-the-minute tastes. Maybe not everyone actively enjoyed these mandatory sing-alongs (I did) but I remember our school hall filled with lusty singing. Sadly, morning assembly was dropped from state schools, which had become too big to fit everyone into one hall; besides, you could no longer count on there being teachers on the staff who could convincingly lead a religious gathering; and, in primary schools, there might well not even be a teacher who could play the piano. The Church of England — which had the clout in 1944 to get compulsory morning assembly incorporated into the Butler Education Act — was too polite by the 1970s to insist on reinstatement, and as the nation became increasingly multicultural, it might have appeared insensitive to be seen to impose Christianity on those of other faiths.


At least there was class singing. Maybe you enjoyed it, maybe you just endured it, but during what was for me a magic hour each week, your whole class O-no-Johned and Keel-rowed its way through the National Song Book, supplemented by Purcell’s ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ and other tuneful classics. That disappeared from school curricula too, one of education’s most disastrous mistakes, along with the adoption of the daft Initial Teaching Alphabet (whatever happened to that?).

And there was Christmas. At my school we practised our carol service music for weeks. The whole school, gathered in a large local church, was coached in the standard Christmas hymns by our headmaster in weekly sessions, and the chapel choir rehearsed their choir carols until they were a very passable facsimile of King’s College Choir on Christmas Eve. On the great day, parents flocked, hundreds of us sang, the organ pealed, and we felt Christmas had truly begun.

Similar observances still take place in churches and school chapels up and down the country, but something has been lost. I’m not sure that it has much to do with a possible loss of the faith underpinning it all, because we never were a universally pious and believing nation: the huge wool churches built in the late Middle Ages, and the barn-like Victorian parish churches of our towns and cities, were even then too big for their congregations. Christianity thrives probably as much as it ever did, at least since compulsion and the threat of hell were lifted.

For me, the missing ingredient in 21st-century Christmas musical celebration is the sense of a shared heritage of words and music which absolutely everybody is familiar with, sung partly by an expert choir and, crucially, by everyone present when that is appropriate. The division of labour in lessons-and-carols services — which were an invention of Bishop Benson of Truro in the 1880s — is perfect: I wouldn’t want to hear Harold Darke’s exquisite ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ sung by a big congregation, but ‘O come, all ye faithful’ needs as many voices as possible, all at full stretch.

No one understood this duality better than Sir David Willcocks, renowned director of King’s College Choir from 1957 to 1974, and editor of the iconic Carols for Choirs series of books, known to just about everyone who has sung in a choir at Christmastime. Traditional carols such as ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’ or ‘Ding dong! merrily on high’ — little pieces of folk art, open to many interpretations — became miracles of choral refinement in his arrangements, intended for élite choir and deserving of perfection in performance. Yet even 1,000 voices are not enough for his great Christmas hymn arrangements; if you know the tune of ‘O come, all ye faithful’, you probably also know the Willcocks descant to the ‘Sing, choirs of angels’ verse, which lights up the sky every time it is performed.

Christmas is a wonderfully inclusive festival, both Christian and secular, celebrated since the Middle Ages in music, song, feasting and drinking. We need to sing in order to play our full part in it. Get singing back in the state schools — properly, not just as once-in-a-while projects. Teach the kids some carols. It shouldn’t be just football that brings us all together. The nation that sings together, stays together.


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