A Point of View: The joy of Christmas carols

Even for those of us who live largely secular lives there is a moment, if we are lucky, in the run-up to Christmas when the season ceases to be all shopping and consumerism and recovers some of its traditional meaning.

For me it is the point on the afternoon of Christmas Eve when I turn on the radio to hear the solo treble voice of a boy chorister singing unaccompanied the first verse of the processional carol, Once in Royal David’s City, in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

Since 1919 this is how the Festival Of Nine Lessons And Carols, broadcast to listeners at home and overseas since the early 1930s, has begun.

It is extraordinary the sense of exaltation and wellbeing that a perfect singing voice can produce, somewhere deep within. My emotions soar. Whatever I am doing in the kitchen, making my preparations for our Christmas dinner, that solo voice stops me in my tracks.

One of the reasons Christmas carols bring such a sense of consolation and connection is surely their familiarity. Most of us have sung them since our primary school days. We pride ourselves on knowing the words. We bridle if we are asked to sing an old favourite to an unfamiliar tune.

Many of us, well muffled up, have carried lanterns around our local area to sing carols to friends and neighbours. We feel the need irresistibly to join in. So my sense of seasonal happiness on Christmas Eve intensifies as the King’s College Choir and congregation reach the final verse of Once in Royal David’s City. I sing loudly along, waving time with whatever wooden spoon or spatula I am currently wielding, as the trebles soar in delicious descant above the familiar tune.

As the word carol – a joyful song – suggests, carols bring us together and connect us in groups of shared experience and feelings. The grand 19th Century congregational numbers – O Come All Ye Faithful and Angels from the Realms of Glory for instance – are rousing hymns of communal praise.

But some carols have a more intimate ring to them. Probably the most familiar to many of us is the late-19th Century children’s favourite Away in a Manger, with its lisping invocation: “Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay/Close by me for ever, and love me I pray.”

The Cherry Tree Carol – possibly as old as the 15th Century – is one I particularly love. It captures beautifully the emotional crossover from the ancient sacred story of the birth of Christ to the everyday world in which we live, where it is sung in remembrance and celebration.

The elderly Joseph and his wife walk in an orchard full of “berries and cherries”, and Mary begs Joseph to pick her some cherries, which she craves because she is pregnant. Joseph responds angrily:

“Then Joseph spoke in anger, in anger spoke he,

Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”

I find it hard to resist singing the lines. But Mary’s unborn child miraculously intervenes:

“Then up spoke baby Jesus from in Mary’s womb,

Bow down the highest branch, that my mother may have some.”

The cherry tree bends to allow Mary to pick her own cherries, delighted she exclaims to her husband: “O see Joseph, I have cherries to command.”

Such sentimental versions of the familiar story remind us that carolling, like the pub sing-along, has always been a way of bringing groups of ordinary people together around a musical accompaniment, to enjoy each other’s company and celebrate a festive occasion. For much of history, before the advent of the gramophone and the radio, this was the way people participated in and enjoyed their music.

To sing along in unison or in harmony you need the tune and the words. At the end of the 15th Century carol books were among the earliest items mass produced on the newly invented printing press, so that each singer and musician could have their own copy to make music from.

Wynken de Worde, the printer and publisher who took over William Caxton’s presses in London in 1495, published a book of Christmasse Carrolles in 1521, of which a single sheet survives containing the Boar’s Head Carol – a wassailing, festive drinking song still sung today.

For centuries more formal instrumental and choral music was the privilege of courts and palaces, performed for audiences of invited guests by orchestras and choirs of retained household musicians, in purpose-built concert halls in stately homes.

They were a grander way for the elite to enjoy their music. The expense and opulence such music represented was part of the ostentatious way of life of the privileged few. It was the invention of the phonograph in the 1870s that meant that musical performances could be preserved and shared with wider audiences, altering and democratising the experience of, say, listening to a Beethoven symphony.


In 2001 the Last Night of the Proms – the culmination of the promenade season of classical music concerts in London – fell two days after the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September. Traditionally that finale, broadcast worldwide to a huge audience, is a light-hearted affair including popular classics, followed by a series of patriotic pieces in the second half, with a rousing unison rendering of the entire Albert Hall audience singing Land of Hope and Glory, topped off by a lusty rendering of Blake’s Jerusalem and the National Anthem.

On this occasion there was no red, white and blue bunting, no union jacks and balloons. Instead, Proms director Nicholas Kenyon decided that the customary finale would be replaced by Beethoven’s Ninth, the choral symphony, as a piece which matched the intensity of emotion of the moment. At the end of the symphony, after almost an hour of intense instrumental music, a massed choir and soloists rise to their feet to sing a poem by the 18th Century German poet Schiller, in praise of universal brotherhood.

Beethoven’s setting – the Ode to Joy – gives a message of hope, even in extremis. I was in the Albert Hall that night. Beethoven’s Ninth brought the entire audience together, and together we wept.

These days an unexpectedly popular shared musical experience is the live HD transmissions from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which beams its season of operas to cinemas around the world. Who would have thought that opera – that most elite of musical entertainments – would be shared by audiences of many thousands around the globe, democratising the operatic experience?

Soaring emotions

This year I have been part of a sellout audience at the iMax cinema in London, on a Saturday night, to enjoy Handel’s Rodelinda, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. And after each performance I have rushed home to phone my sister in New Jersey, who has watched the very same transmission from her local cinema, at 1pm on the same day.

We exchange views on the singers’ performances, the staging and the costumes, as if we had been in the auditorium together. Meanwhile, audiences as far afield as Russia and Japan have been sharing the experience with us, each in their separate time zone.

It is the sense of sharing, even across the distance that separates us, that seems to make these simultaneous opera experiences so fulfilling. Music impinges directly on the emotions, bypassing our rational self. Hence there seems to be a stronger than usual bonding between those experiencing the most highly-wrought music together over almost unimaginable distances.

In Britain Christmas is traditionally a family affair. Up and down the country children and grandchildren, cousins and family friends, assemble round the groaning Christmas table for roast turkey, plum pudding and all the trimmings. Or so we imagine.

In fact, today families are more likely to experience separation in the festive season. Last week on the London Underground I heard my neighbour explain to his companion that there would be no Christmas meal at his parents’ house, because he would be in Dubai working, while his sister lived in Brazil and his brother and his family in Texas.

These are the new diasporas – families scattered by commitments and circumstances, unable on grounds of time and expense to make the long journey home. There will be no communal meal or opening of presents, but instead a Skype call or a FaceTime video-chat as the best available way to unite the family for the holidays.

Which for many people makes those broadcast carols on Christmas Eve – and again on Christmas Day – all the more important. Binding memory, community and tradition in one soaring emotional experience, those shared “joyful songs” are the best means we have of reconnecting to home and family, and re-evaluating at the end of what for many will have been a particularly difficult year.


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