The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Let’s look at the evidence.
Christmas carols under threat?Choral composer and arranger John Rutter wrote an article in The Spectator recently: The threat to Christmas carols and how to save them.
The main thrust of his argument is that, as a nation (we’re talking about the UK here), we don’t have many songs in common any more and don’t sing together as much as we used to (see also Is community singing dead? and Singing together).
As Rutter says: “We aren’t, in general, much good at massed singing these days.”
We don’t go to church as much as we used to, not all schools have morning assemblies any more (and music in schools is constantly under threat), there aren’t radio programmes like Singing Together (check out Jarvis Cocker’s recent BBC Radio 4 programme: Singing Together), and we no longer, as a nation, watch the same TV programmes at the same time.
He goes on to say “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 …”
In his view, carols (and other forms of singing together as a nation) are under threat because we no longer have a shared set of songs that everyone knows.
He finishes by saying: “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.”
I wholeheartedly agree. But is the situation as bad as he suggests? Are Christmas carols really in such danger?
Christmas carols alive and well?In the same week as Rutter’s article appeared, Esther Addley wrote an article for The Guardian: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: the thriving culture of pub Christmas carols.
Not just around Sheffield, or just in Yorkshire, but also in Derbyshire, Cornwall and other pockets across the UK, village carol singing is thriving. There is even some suggestion that the various traditions are connected and that the large numbers of Cornish miners who settled in the Peak District might well have brought carols with them which went on to influence the Yorkshire tradition.
Here’s an example of a traditional carol from near Sheffield:
Holly and the Ivy, Royal Hotel, Dungworth, near Sheffield
And here's another:
Sweet Chiming Christmas Bells, The Masons Arms, Grange Over Sands, Cumbria
And finally, my favourite:
Hail Smiling Morn, Royal Hotel, Dungworth, near Sheffield
You’ll note that even in these videos some people have lyric sheets, so maybe they don’t have as many songs in common as we think! At least they turn out each year and have a good old sing-along.
You can find out more about the Yorkshire and Derbyshire (and Welsh and Cornish) carol singing traditions on the Village Carols website and the Local Carols website.
On 7 January 7 2014 Ian Russell gave the ‘Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture’ at the Library of Congress in Washington DC: Hidden Carols: A Christmas Singing Tradition in the English A webcast of this is available through the Library of Congress. It's over an hour long, but very informative (if a little dry and academic).
There is also a strong tradition of Plygain carol singing in Wales. In the dark hours on the morning of Christmas Day, before the cockerel crowed, men gathered in rural churches to sing. They sang mainly unaccompanied, three or four part harmony carols in a service that went on for three hours or so. Only the men - never the women - sang at the service.
how do we keep it alive?So if you look hard enough you will find a vibrant carol singing tradition alive and well in the UK.
However, we can’t be complacent and it would be great if, as a nation, we could burst into song at every opportunity, singing songs that we all know well. Which means: get out there and join a choir or learn some songs or go to your local carol concert and join in, but most importantly sing with your kids and lobby to get singing and music back into schools.
Being a lover of music from all over the world, I’ll leave you with a rousing Christmas song from Nigeria. Enjoy.
Betelehemu, Mormon Tabernacle Choir