IDLE CURIOSITY: Highways and Byways of Hymns

Christopher Idle. December 1997

No Crying at Christmas?

CHILL WINDS HOWLED round the Rectory chimneys of Oakston Parva; a log moved on the fire. The organist and two churchwardens had gathered one evening to plan the carol Service. The Rector shifted nervously in his armchair wondering how to put his suggestions.

'I wonder, ' he began, 'er - as we are now finally in Europe whether we might include some carols firm our European partners; and possibly even; he coughed - 'one or two American ones?'

Europe!' spluttered the churchwarden; 'But surely Rector the whole village wants to keep Christmas in the traditional English manner? I'm not against foreigners, and we did very well in One World Week and so forth: but at a time like this we should stick to our traditions! We seem to have heard nothing but Europe for years. No, I'd vote for our own carols, please."

'I must agree with George, ' said the organist, examining her feet. 'As for these modern American songs...I suppose you do want me to play the organ this year, Rector?'

'Why yes, that is if you are able to again, Ethel,'' said the Rector, noting the murmur of approval greeting these first reactions. 'I take it that as a group you are not really ready for my suggestions?'

No one wanted to hurt the old boy's feelings, but Christmas was Christmas; this had taken them all by surprise. Whatever could he be thinking of? 'Well, I wouldn't want to upset anyone, 'he said, i shall just have to revise my ideas a bit, that's all. In any case at this season we are hardly short of material.' Then speaking in a slightly firmer voice, he wielded his black pen and struck through several items on the list, reciting them as he went. 'Right, 'he murmured: 'Not O little town of Bethlehem; omit It came upon a midnight clear; we can't have Away in a manger, but I don't suppose the children will mind; and this does rather rule out Silent night. Being both European and American, ' he explained with a smile.

'We'd better not risk Infant holy; or those German and Latin ones. What about Ireland? No. I guess not; a pity - I did rather like While shepherds watched; Good King Wenceslas is rather too obviously continental...' he tailed off as the little group sat speechless. Then, more confidently:

'English?. Let's see. There is Michael Perry's Come and sing the Christmas story; his Calypso Carol is rather Caribbean, isn't it? Timothy Dudley-Smith spoils us for choice: I'd go for The darkness turns to dawn. We've got Michael Saward's Come all you good people; very English! George Caird and Richard Bewes and Fred Pratt Green have all written some good stuff; I think we're almost there! Yes, I suppose there is a case for keeping everything English, just as it was at Bethlehem long ago. I am grateful for your comments!'

It could never happen here. But how many carollers this month realise the international flavour of what we sing? And that their great-grandparents somehow got through Christmas without so much as a sniff of what we consider vital? Away in a manger? Maximum age just over a century; having lost the lord of the manor's family because we left it out one year. I'm willing to award five gold stars to any carol sheet ditching the heretical line 'But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes'.

In this second piece in our series I have gone form death to birth. But its too late to help anyone now; because all your carols are chosen, aren't they?

Christopher Idle is Associate Minister of Christ Church, Old Kent Road, in the diocese of Southwark.

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