Exploring the magic of village carol services

PUBLISHED: 07:07 16 December 2017

People are invited to join in the celebration of Christmas at a number of different services at St Annes Church, in Colman Road, Earlham.
Photo: Simon Finlay

People are invited to join in the celebration of Christmas at a number of different services at St Annes Church, in Colman Road, Earlham. Photo: Simon Finlay

Archant Norfolk.

Across the region and across the world, people will be gathering for their local carol services. Trevor Heaton explores the enduring appeal of these very special events.

It’s always the same. It’s always different. It’s round the corner – and round the world.

The village carol service is an institution that is so local, yet so universal too.

It’s one of those things which make life in the East Anglian countryside special. It helps make up for all those muddy lanes, dodgy wifi, long commutes and unexplained power cuts. These are the times - like seeing the first primroses on the verges, the cow parsley flowering like frothy champagne, and the barn owls silently quartering a field – that remind us why we moved out here in the first place.

By mid-December those country lanes are a little muddy (that sugar beet harvest won’t transport itself) so parking cars calls for a bit of co-operation and community spirit. But that’s not something we’re usually short of out in the sticks.

For churches without electricity, practicality means the service needs to start late afternoon while there’s still some light around. We are lucky with ours to be able to have lights guiding our steps along the gravel path. As well as being practical, it also does its bit to heighten the anticipation. This is going to be A Special Village Occasion.

Stepping inside the porch, the first thing we usually hear is the hiss of the Calor gas heaters in an effort to warm the congregation through. They never quite manage it – this stone building stays determinedly cool winter, summer, spring and autumn. But we appreciate the gesture. There are smiles everywhere, quiet conversations.

Then the moment arrives when the rector walks out into the church. The hubbub stops welcoming words are said… the service is about to begin. The lights are switched off. Now it is just the dozens of candles ranged on the windowsills which give a glow to the inside of the church, the way they did for hundreds of years before electricity.

I expect, like most of us, I must have come across carols at primary school. By the time of secondary school, they had become concentrated into an annual trip out to a chapel for the service.

And, no, we weren’t a very small school – it was (and is) a very big chapel. St Nicholas’ at King’s Lynn happens to be the largest chapel-of-ease in the country. The ‘Fisherman’s Church’ is huge, and also has the second-oldest flight of carved angels in the country (Westminster Hall was first). So where better, I ask you, to sing about the ‘angelic host proclaiming’?

You could fit some of the village churches I’ve visited into one small corner of it. That doesn’t matter in the least, for what they might lack in grandeur they more than make up for in a sense of cosiness. On a day like this all the ancient pews are jammed with people in winter coats and sensible shoes.

As for the format of what we are about to do, that is – of course - Nine Lessons and Carols. This style of service has its roots back almost 130 years ago, in Truro. But it really took off in popularity when King’s College Chapel in Cambridge introduced it in 1918. Ten years later, it was broadcast for the first time and it soon became a much-loved Christmas tradition for millions. It still is.

It also has the merits of being short – a relief not so much because of its content (which is as moving as you could wish for) but from the very practical fact that the candles we all hold are perilously close to burning down to their cardboard handguards by its end. But we always manage to make it somehow. There is, as we journos never tire of saying, nothing like a deadline.

They begin with Once in Royal David’s City – and so do we. We don’t have a boy treble to perform that first-verse solo, but our sweet-voiced organist Margaret does the honours (with style) instead.

The mix of carols varies a little every year. We all have our favourites. For many it’s Silent Night – and we have a soft spot for this, especially as a few years ago we spent Christmas in the deep snow at the Austrian lakeside town of Hallstatt, only a few miles from where it was written in 1818.

At its midnight mass, their churchgoers, of course, sang the original German version. We muddled along, sotto voce, with the English words. When we stepped out into the crisp night air it was to the sight of red candles flickering among the graves of loved ones, and over across Lake Hallstatt, lit only by a night sky dusted with stars like celestial icing sugar. And, yes, it was silent – really silent.

Back in the village church though, everyone is beginning to warm up and get into the well-remembered tunes with gusto.

One carol I always look out for is In The Bleak Midwinter, the musical setting of a poem (‘A Christmas Carol’) by Christina Rossetti. She wrote some of the most poignant lines you will find – ‘Remember’ is another favourite - and also some of the strangest (‘Goblin Market’).

There have been a couple of musical accompaniments, but the one I love is the classic, and perfect, Holst one. The thing is, it shouldn’t even work as a carol, really. Rossetti’s lines vary in syllable count which makes it tricky to sing (there always seem to be unexpected notes) but its beautiful last verse makes the effort all worthwhile.

I love hearing the traditional readings. If pushed, I prefer the old King James Bible language – the only thing, famously, which a committee ever did better than one person. Nostalgic and comforting, it’s the only time you will ever hear that phrase ‘wrapped in swaddling clothes’. It took me years as a child to work that one out.

I like the mixture of voices and accents doing the readings too. It’s a reminder that this is a real community occasion.

And so we move on, familiar carol following familiar reading. Do children still slyly sing ‘While shepherds washed their socks by night’, I wonder? We used to; not now, of course. Or only in our heads, anyway.

We’re warming up our vocal chords now. Here comes Ding Dong Merrily on High – the ‘high’ bits really stretching us. And now here’s The Holly and the Ivy, with its ancient echoes of days of Yule. It’s also a bit of an epic carol - ‘it dew run on’, as they say round these parts.

Which reminds me how we once, in a mad burst of Christmas enthusiasm, went to a village carol service, midnight mass, and then Christmas Day service – all within 19 hours. I worked out we got through 72 – seventy-two! – verses of carols on the way. We certainly earned our mulled wine that year, I can tell you.

Our service always has that ‘aaah’ moment, when the rector encourages the young children to search for the figure of the baby Jesus in the church and place it in the crib.

And, as an aside, what a shame – others might want to put it more strongly than that – that some primary schools are not holding carol concerts these days. These carols are a part of our shared cultural heritage, beautiful tunes with hopeful words that have so much to say about our common humanity.

Without the schools playing their part, could we really be prepared to lose these songs, handed down from generation to generation - in some cases for hundreds of years?

But right here, right now, maybe in the ancient carved pew where perhaps 25 generations have sat before me, it is hard to imagine that we might ever drop this particular cultural baton. When you strip it down to its basics, it is only a collection of words and a collection of notes – but in its way it is more enduring than stone.

Because, despite the millions and millions they spend each year to persuade us otherwise, you won’t find the real spirit of Christmas down the aisles of a supermarket. You won’t find it in the hustle and bustle of a busy shoppers’ car park, and you definitely won’t find it on line.

But you might just find it in the happy faces of children, or the mardling villagers clutching their cups of mulled wine and mince pies, or in the hearty good wishes of the rector shaking hands with every one of the worshippers.

Sometimes there’s more; much more. Like the time when we emerged from an ancient church porch to see, set out in the pinkish winter sky the silhouettes of magnificent buzzards gliding over the treetops against a magnificent sunset. We felt blessed – doubly blessed, for not only were we emerging with our Christmas spirit batteries well and truly topped up, right in front of us were the glories of creation in as neat a package as you could wish for.

Or the time a few years back when we came out of our village church to a magical moment frozen in time and space which I replay in my head every Christmas when I walk past it, a mind’s-eye video more personal, more universal, than anything on a screen.

We stepped out of the church porch to a winter wonderland, a snow scene which made it looked like a card come to life. And when we got to the top of the lane, and looked back to the still-illuminated church, there – like it had been arranged just for us - were a hundred thousand snowflakes falling, falling, falling…

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