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Mince pies, mulled wine, cold noses ... you’re right – Christmas Carols!
Carol singing is an essential part of Christmas - like Rudolph, Santa, Baby Jesus, Bing Crosby and mistletoe. Strange to say, however, it’s not of Christian origin. It was originally pagan and probably associated with fertility rites. The Church hijacked it, along with many other pagan customs, and turned it into the traditional Christmas Carols that we know today.
I know of people who have fallen in love while carol singing, so perhaps it remains a fertility rite!
There are many ways to enjoy singing Christmas Carols, and here are some of them. You can get out in the freezing cold, you can go somewhere a bit warmer like a Shopping Centre, or you can organise a traditional Carol Service in your church.
Singing Christmas Carols from Door to Door
.. is a very old custom. A book published in 1795 talks about singers going from house to house singing Christmas carols in the North of England – so you’re really carrying on an ancient and much-loved tradition.
Get as many singers as you can, dress colourfully in warm clothing, get a few lanterns and make the group look happy and vivacious. Get some instruments if you can – a keyboard, wind, and percussion (not too much of the last item!) Recruit some men so that you can sing Christmas Carols in parts and consult beforehand with the singers to work out what they want to perform.
Make sure that there’s an agreed programme and that all the singers have the same words – it’s no good if the carols peter out because the words aren’t known. If you sing in parts make sure that all the performers use the same Carol Books – you won’t want to regale the audience with a series of nasty discords! And be careful how long you stay at one doorstep – a couple of well presented Christmas Carols is sufficient.
If you’re invited, do go in, but only stay a short while. And, if you go into 20 or so houses watch what refreshment your singers are taking – you may end up going down the street singing Roll out the barrel instead of Away in a Manger!
Raising money for Charity with Christmas Carols
How about raising money for charity while you're about it? A good place for this is the local Shopping Centre. The more hustle and bustle there is in the days leading up to Christmas, the happier the Shopping Centre management will be, so this is usually welcomed.
You may need permission from the police; you’ll certainly need it from the Supermarket and also the Charity for which you are singing. Take some baskets to collect money and make sure it’s obvious which charity you are collecting for.
As before, you'll need to dress brightly and get the choir into a happy mood first - nobody wants to listen to a group of long-faced singers at Christmas. And as far as the music is concerned, you need to regard this as a concert performance: too many times a visit to the shops around Christmas is marred by a band of dull, or perhaps giggly singers who don't know either the notes, the words, or the order of performance. Better to do a very few simple Christmas Carols well, than overreach yourselves.
A good way to attract a crowd would be to have some of the younger members of the choir, or perhaps youngsters from the choristers' families, perform what they can do very well - dancing of some kind, or maybe some recorder music. As always at Christmas, have seasonal refreshments and mistletoe afterwards and really get into the swing of it!
One of the most potent of Christmas images is the Carol Service. They happen everywhere and there are few churches which don’t have at least one. The first Carol Service is reputed to have taken place in Truro Cathedral in the 19th Century.
Nine lessons and Christmas Carols is the usual format, but you can design the service however you and your minister like. The choice of readings is vital – and you don’t have to stick to Biblical ones. There’s much poetry and many readings associated with Christmas. Do make sure that it's well-written.
Humorous readings go down well. I remember the British tv personality Richard Baker reading Thomas Hardy’s wonderful story about the Church Gallery Band which wrecked the Sunday Service because it was under the drunken impression that it was still playing in the local pub! Try and get some celebrities to read. Spread your net wide and get the very best readings read by the best-known people.
When it comes to the choice of Christmas Music there are countless possibilities. You don’t have to start with “Once in Royal David’s City” – there are alternatives. I fear, though, that it would be a very brave choirmaster who chose one! Give the congregation a good sing with all the old favourites and choose some cheerful contemporary Christmas Carols.
Also, not too many "twee" arrangements – they have little connection with the robust carol-singing which most people enjoy, though a gentle Lullaby sung by the younger members of the choir is always most effective. Explore with the authorities the possibility of a candle-lit service ... but if you do this, make sure that the choirboys don’t set light to their robes! I’ve seen this happen and it’s frightening. Remember that children get wildly excited as Christmas approaches, and choirboys and choirgirls are no exception.
Make the Service a great and moving experience for both congregation and choir and see that the choir has a good party afterwards! It's an ideal opportunity for moulding your choir into a loyal and committed group.
Christmas warmth ...
One of my warmest memories of singing Christmas Carols was when we visited a hospital. We went from ward to ward with our lanterns, singing as we went along the corridors. In some wards the patients were too ill to give much response (hospitals tend to clear out non-emergencies for the Christmas season), but I think they appreciated the brief visit.
The high point was when we visited the maternity ward. They lowered the lights to get the benefit of our lanterns and bright colours. We stood in a large circle in the middle of the ward and sang with great enthusiasm the choir's favourite Christmas piece - In dulce jubilo by Pearsall. The women gathered round and listened intently, and I'm sure they reflected on what a special moment this was in their lives - having their babies at Christmastime.
Christmas is a great time – enjoy it and the wonderful music associated with it.
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