The sweetness of Christmas comes from the relief that we are to be freed from our sins. This great fact, grasped or ungrasped, is why most people feel a little happier, a little kinder, a little more hopeful at Christmas time. There is a grace in the melodies of carols, a plain faith in the words of hymns, from nation to nation, right around the world, that identifies them as carols in any language, be they gentle as lullabies, for the Child, or booming and glorious, to greet the King.
The best and most widely acknowledged example of this is Fr Josef Mohr’s Stille Nacht. Sing this in any language and the night and the heart are stilled indeed and, to take a line from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – “ the dear Christ enters in”.
It doesn’t matter whether the singer is Bing, the “White Christmas” man, the choristers from the Chapel of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, or a line of tots got up in gaudy costumes for their nativity play in the village school; the words, the melody of Silent Night go to the heart.
A catharsis of negative feelings about hymns has been unleashed in the columns of this newspaper, “What is your least favourite hymn?” being the question. Answers on postcards are streaming in. Are there awful carols? This is rather a large postcard, but there is no carol I flinch from, unless it is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. My problem is not the mighty carol itself but the fact that it is always done last at Midnight Mass when choir and congregation are vocally shattered.
My own keenest memory of the magic of carols is from a winter night in Poland, in the bad old days of 1983. We were a party of journalists touring the country as guests of KUL, the Catholic University of Lublin. We were on the hard road between Jasna Gora and Warsaw in the campus minibus, the vehicle coughing against a tankful of rubbish-grade fuel. We were cold, tired, thirsty and our spirits somewhat low. We had gratefully sliced and shared a couple of large cooking apples between us all.Our host and courier then played a tape of Polish carols, recorded a capella by the student choir of their university. The lightness and beauty of the melodies created a mood of wonderful peace and consolation, never mind that we had no idea what the words meant. We only knew they told the Christmas tale. In the flash of oncoming headlights we saw a tear or two standing in the eyes of our Polish companions.
We were each given a copy of that tape and I have played mine every Christmas season since. There are 10 carols, each by a different composer. I am always surprised, given how many of the carols popular in England are from abroad, that none of these entrancing carols has come into the regular canon of those we sing here. The three I like most are Dzis Dzien Wesoly (“This Day of Joy”) by W Swierczek, Narodzil Sie Nam Zbawiciel, (“A Saviour is Born”) by F Raczkowski and Jasna Panna, (“A Virgin in Splendour”) by J Maklakiewicz.
English carols trace back to the 15th century and the form has always been characterised by directness of thought and expression. The word has a sense of joy and of the circle. As a verb it meant to dance in a ring. It could also mean a circle of standing stones or an enclosure in a cloister. “The whiles the maydens doe theyr carroll sing” wrote the poet Spenser in the 16th century.
The most popular collection with choirs in England is still the famous “green book”, Oxford Carols: Carols for Choirs 1, first published in the 1960s, but in sundry editions since. Prepared by Reginald Jacques and David Willcocks, it contains 50 carols, definitively arranged. Interestingly, a full third of them are from other countries.
Sir David has become a beacon figure in our Christmas music and his son Jonathan conducts the Chichester Singers, with whom I sang for a number of years as a rather dodgy first bass. They give their primary concerts in Chichester Cathedral but on the last Saturday, before Christmas they gather round the Market Cross and sing carols from the “green book”, in four-part, always finishing with the traditional west country carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with its festive demand that the singers be supplied with figgy pudding. “We won’t go until we’ve got some,” is its highlight verse, a fine fusing of pie with piety that Chesterton must have loved to bits. The weather was often wintry on those occasions and some of the pages of my copy are permanently puckered from Christmas downpours of rain or sleet.
My favourite carol, because of its wonderful sense of mystery, is the traditional English, “I Saw Three Ships” but I think the most exciting carol of all is Adolphe Adam’s Cantique de Noel, sung in English as, “O Holy Night”. All the great tenors have recorded it, Caruso and Domingo in the French original. I love Mario Lanza’s thrilling account of the English.
This is where a dream comes in, and a dream that came true. There was a young nurse who sang “O Holy Night” in my parish of baptism in Kent at the Midnight Mass many years ago. Her lovely voice embroidered the soaring tune on the very gates of heaven and I dreamed, as many must have, of one day doing that myself. The years passed. I took up singing. I worked hard. Then one Christmas, amazingly, I was indeed asked to sing it, first at the parish carol concert and then at the Midnight Mass. The trouble was that I had only a simple setting, with one verse, which left the piece a little short for the moment in the Mass when it was wanted. So, with just half an hour to spare before the rehearsal I wrote another verse, a first verse to be sung before the well-known one. I sang it on both occasions, and can set out this new first verse here. I have ceded the copyright to St Anthony’s friars in Padua. This great carol has been entrusted to me again at Midnight Mass this year and I am already nervous.
O HOLY NIGHT A new first verse: O holy night, an end to all our waiting, It is the night that the maid bore a son.
God’s word fulfilled, all earthly grief abating, Bow down your heads, worship God’s Holy One.
The trumpets sound with angel chorus mingling While shepherds haste to greet the wondrous child.
Kneel there with them, be still before the mystery, The world’s saving light in a manger gently laid.
O holy night, holy night, night divine. I tell you this tale for a purpose, for your encouragement. If I can write a verse for a favourite carol, so can you.
Sit down at your piano keyboard, or take up your favourite instrument, and find a tune. Maybe you have had a tune in your head for a long time and never settled down to capture it. Now is the time.
Just “follow a point of light” the way Mozart said he did, keeping in mind your favourite part of the Christmas story, the part that touches your own heart most readily. Let your own carol flow. It need not be long. It need not have complex rhythms. It doesn’t have to be deep theology. But it will be your own.
I wrote a carol by this system some years ago and put it in my late wife’s Christmas stocking as a “little extra”.
It was about cooking the goose, the smoke going up the chimney and wondering which way to blow, and about rejoicing in the Lord.
It probably wasn’t very wonderful and the publishers haven’t knocked my door down to get it. But it fitted in fine, along with the Mars Bar, the tangerine, the lipstick and the other seasonal bits and pieces.
Many people are scandalised, or wearied, or feel that they should be, by the way the commercial world blares and pipes the carols at us from the last days of October right up to Christmas Day. Christmas menus appear on pub and restaurant tables in August nowadays. I am untroubled by all this.
When I set about mending the world’s broken fences I shall not start with this one; indeed I know I shall never reach it. Inside the church, however, I do have sympathy with the new trend to keep Advent with greater purpose, postponing the carols, save in rehearsal, until the Holy Night. But I have no trouble carol singing in the wider community, with those of all faiths, half faith, pick’n’mix faith and none. We all echo the angels over Bethlehem.
Many years ago, in a country parish some way down into Kent, an ecumenical choir, with myself a scratch member, had sung its way all round the village, raising a goodly sum for some goodly work.
We came at last to the convent of the Sisters of Mercy, who in those days conducted the parish primary school. “You’re a solid Roman, Kevin,” the vicar said. “What carol should we sing for the Sisters?” I didn’t let him down. “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” I gravely returned.