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Word from Wormingford

19 December 2006

Ronald Blythe plans the carols and appoints the lesson-readers

PERCY DEARMER wanted carols to be sung at church services throughout the year. Instead of the anthem, for instance, and as an extra delight after the blessing, now that the choir and congregation were in good voice. He described them as “songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern”.

“Please, sir, may we sing a carol?” begged a member of Parson Woodford’s congregation on Christmas morning. “You may, but not until I am out of the church.”

Some remote intelligence presumably told him that a carol was a dance. Or maybe, his Diary revealing his appetite, he flinched from having to listen to the eating- and drinking-carols of his day such as “Wassail, wassail, all over the town!”

Our carol services — Henry takes one; I take the other — have to be the same every year, though different, his at Little Horkesley, mine at Wormingford. They must begin with Mrs Alexander and end with Charles Wesley. I religiously destroy each year’s copy so as to hold on to a mite of freshness in the latest selection; and I am always startled, as is everyone else, by the heart-wrenching power of the familiar.

Into its English Gothic setting comes a Bethlehem so at variance with the grim concrete town we see on the screen that it is hard to find a connection. Out goes all debate. The wonder, the wonder! And all of it just saved in time; for, if Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams, two young men, had not suddenly realised just before the First World War that a rare kind of song was slipping into silence, the carol-book would have been a flimsy affair.

I love the secular borrowings, such as singing Bishop Brooks’s “O little town of Bethlehem” to Vaughan Williams’s tune of “The Ploughboy’s Dream”. As for Gustav Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the bleak midwinter”, the chancel arch shivers as we do our best to re-enter poverty.

“Where do Christmas songs begin?” asks Timothy Dudley-Smith. “By the stable of an inn Where the songs of hosts on high Mingled with a baby’s cry.” Where do Christmas songs hit the roof? In King’s College Chapel.

Borrowed from Truro Cathedral, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first heard at Cambridge in December 1918 in a world of mourning, in a tall church of empty stalls. In a sacred cage where, to adapt Shakespeare, once the sweet birds sang. Now all shot and buried in mud. Come, thou Redeemer of the earth.

I strew nine lesson-readers through the lectern Bible. No names. By their deeds shall ye know them. A churchwarden, a hospice director, a farmer, a bell-ringer, a commuter, a schoolboy, a schoolgirl, a parish councillor, a lay canon. Then I hand the whole thing over to Christopher the organist and wait for the village to swarm in. Which it usually does.

Waiting, I remember learning Frances Chesterton’s “How far is it to Bethlehem?” from mother, I suppose, and definitely from the curate’s wife, a large Welshwoman with a surprisingly small, true voice. “Lullay my liking, my dear son, my sweeting; Lullay my dear heart, mine own dear darling!” and other carols which remain outside our nine. As is Geoffrey Shaw’s robust “Unto us a boy is born!” Carols are filled with exclamation marks. Our handbell-ringers stand round a table and make a silvery noise. The Advent candles burn out.

There is the crib, invented, they say, by St Francis, ours with knitted creatures, human and farmyard. There is the gale outside, and the music within.

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