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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  • Ali

    Exactly right, thank you.

    Bring back ‘Singing Together’ as well as compulsory assemblies, and never mind all that trying to appeal to people of different faiths, children of all faiths love singing. To think that singing of all things could be another victim of the multicultural experiment makes me cry. And just bring back The National Song Book, it doesn’t need revising.

    There are some pretty good children’s choirs around; my children sing in the award winning Scunthorpe Cooperative Junior Choir. Although Susan Hollingworth retired this year her legacy is great

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I came to Muslim Malaysia to escape that Christmas BS, and what do you know: it’s wall-to-wall here as well.
    Jack, Penang

    • Swanky

      What happened to your famous Alps?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        It was so dull in town. Literally everyone was away on visa runs or preparing to start the New Year with a bang (AKA, getting into the culture), I simply couldn’t stand it a moment longer.
        Read carefully.
        Jack, Penang, Malaysia
        Round, round, round, round, I get around.

        • Swanky

          Look out: that’s an American song! Golden Californian, into the bargain!

    • Terry Field

      Singing is not bullshit you barbaric foul mouthed little turd.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Foul mouthed? That would be you, Terry. Every department store and up-market supermarket pumps canned Christmas music at you. Perhaps I should send Mohammed a Christ card asking him to “knock it off a bit” or at least turn the volume down.
        And for all the clowns that thumbed up foul mouthed Terry, shove it up your donkey.
        Jack, on the third world backpacker trail.
        “Take up the White man’s burden”
        And hurry up with that winter fuel allowance, HMG.

        • First Vette

          Hmmm . . . The book of Miriam (Jesus’ Mother) and several others say that Jesus was a greater ‘Prophet (or Preacher) than Muhammed. -So, why aren’t YOU celebrating Him?

    • Old Nick

      So glad

    • Swanky

      Serves you right, Jack: did you really think THEY are better than US?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Ain’t you got no grammar, Swank?

        • Swanky

          I’ll rephrase it: Did you really think THEY are better than WE are?

          • gerontius

            Ah, found you! – talk about nooks and crannies.
            My email is down, but Hi.
            I tried to enthrall Damaris with the wonders of Cracow but i failed – she’s a “warm port” girl I fear, maybe I will have better luck with you.

          • Swanky

            Hi. I did get your message even if you didn’t get my reply. Hope you feel better soon. I’m very elastic about the loveliness of the world. Glad you enjoyed it, G.

          • gerontius

            I’m OK – early night is best I think.
            Two cats and a woman – what could possibly go wrong?!

            PS: I rescind that – even in jest – (you’re a woman) – I’m befuddled!

          • Swanky

            That’s all right, sicko ;^) I’m sort of a woman but no one’s in danger from me. Have a good long sleep with lovely dreams. And possibly a nightcap.

          • gerontius

            I went in to work this morning, but I think I’ll miss the Christmas lunch, so no dancing on the tabletops for me – I just ain’t jolly. (I’ll make up for it later)

          • Swanky

            Shame about the Christmas lunch. I hope someone saved a slice of cake for you.

  • Swanky

    Singing is vastly better than swimming. You can’t drown, for one thing. I haven’t recorded my own original Christmas songs (there are two) yet, but I will. In the meantime, how about this gorgeous carol with gorgeous children to sweeten it — ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, which you mention: my favourite carol of all:

  • Damaris Tighe

    John, what you say is so true. I went to a bog standard state school which happened to have a very committed music teacher. So it was that we twice put on two magnificent choral pieces, Hadyn’s Heiligmasse & Vivaldi’s Gloria. The choirs were open to anyone & bad singers like me were simply drowned out by the good ones.

    Being part of a choir is an experience I’ll never forget. It introduced me not only to beautiful classical music but also to feeling part of something bigger, & more than, myself. The choir is greater than the sum of its parts &, as you imply, there is something very therapeutic in singing.

    The changes in teaching & school culture that you describe have contributed to dismantling both our national culture & society. Although I hated the dreary hymn singing at assembly, I can see that it reflected a common culture that we no longer have.

  • SheffieldFolk

    In South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, there is a healthy tradition of singing Christmas Carols in pubs 🙂 Go drink beer and sing!


    (List of sings: http://www.localcarols.org.uk)

  • sgmrmp

    Thank you, John. You may be encouraged to hear that English music and tradition has taken firm root here in the States, and Lessons & Carols (even if not called exactly that) is found in many an American church in its essential form.

  • Veronica Lowe

    I have just ‘acquired’ a choir: Fifteen or so women who joined in when someone decided we should have a ‘community choir’ in our local library. As a folk and church musician I went along to see what was happening, and found they had no one to lead or accompany, so I am now their animator. All but two of them, with ages ranging from 40s to 80+, have not sung since school. To me, as a very old folkie, that does not bear thinking about. Then I discover that at our grandson’s school carol event, it is mostly new songs with backing tracks. Too clever, and tradition undermined again. However, some of us in Gloucestershire have collated county carols and wassails and put them on an easy access website, Glos Christmas, along with their history, and we hope to keep tradition alive. This will expand with a larger lottery funded project with a thousand or more Glos songs, transcribed from Cecil Sharp and other manuscripts as well as field recordings. One of the Christmas ones is the well known ‘The Holy and the Ivy’ collected in early C20th by Cecil Sharp. There is such a tradition of singing that we must keep alive.

  • Terence Hale

    “The threat to Christmas carols – and how to save them”. As a result of my First Communion I am against throwing buckets of water and using a hose pipe against carol singers.

  • Jaime Axel Ruiz

    In Lisbon they do not have this trouble.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    When this cruel war is over
    Oh how happy I shall be
    When I get my civvie clothes on
    No more soldiering for me

    To the melody of “What a friend we have in Jesus”

    And now a word from foul-mouthed Terry.

    Jack, Penang

  • Gwangi

    I used to love morning assembly hymn singing at primary school. Broken voices make secondary school assembly singing a disaster though!
    I also adore Christmas carols.
    I detest modern hymns and all that pc ‘group huggy’ singsong stuff they do now so as not to offend the Muslim children (and their fathers). I also detest modern Christian evangelical hymns – I love the traditional tope of the pops though.
    And I say that as a dedicated atheist – the imagery and poetry and music of Christianity and hymns is part of my culture.
    Dam the educationalist dunces whose misguided multiculturalism means they want to destroy our culture and replace it with inoffensive, meaningless, tuneless, mediocre, pastel-shaded piffle.

  • Sharon Deason

    Thank you for this, Mr. Rutter! Wonderful article, and you may well have saved my Christmas, too. You see, I’m hosting my huge extended family who fully expect to do music as you have described. I have two pianos in my living room but had forgotten to get them tuned and they so desperately need it. I read to the point of “Until the 1950s, you might well have sung round the piano with your family,” gasped and went to the phone. The piano tuner’s coming tomorrow.

  • Picquet

    The nation isn’t ‘together’. The New Labour gangsters did all they could to fragment it, and they were successful.

  • Al Bowlly

    A Cornish carol, not particularly well sung IMHO, but I hope you get the gist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJ8BIRxh9ao

  • vvputout

    Updating required – start with Luther’s Ein feste Burg, a great hymn in German or English but needing new words.

  • David T

    I passed by a group of a dozen or more carol singers one evening competing with the roar of traffic. How charmless it seemed. I never gave them anything.

  • MC73

    I went to a carol service this year, for the first time in at least a decade. I found it immensely enjoyable and spiritually invigorating. I might pop into church again next year.

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