Just over a week to go to Christmas, and churches will be preparing for their carol services. Technically, there is a difference between a Christmas carol and a Christmas hymn, but I’ve never been able to definitively put my finger on which is which. As a rule of thumb, I think that songs that tell a story – such as While Shepherds Watched or Good King Wenceslas – are probably carols while those that are more worship-based – such as Hark the Herald Angels and O Come All Ye Faithful – are probably hymns. There are also Easter carols, but let’s leave those for a few months.
Some carols/hymns I like more than others. The Holly and the Ivy, for example, has always struck me as a collection of rather tenuous links.
Many carols have well known alternative lyrics. Shepherds eating fish and chips or angels giving almighty sneezes in While Shepherds Watched; cars with faulty lights in We Three Kings; and beer shortages in The First Nowell (“No ale, no stout, all beer sold out; born is the king with his short hanging out”).
Here is a short selection of some of my favourite carols.
Silent Night, judging by the number of versions I have (six), is the most recorded carol. The popular story is that this was penned overnight by a priest after he discovered that mice had eaten through the organ mechanism. This story is probably more fable than truth – unlike the arm amputation incident that led to the line “the arm of flesh will fail you” in Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus (honest – look it up).
This version is by Nick Lowe. You make like it or loath it – but you have to admit, it’s different.
The next is a relatively modern carol, that I came across only a couple of years ago. It has quickly become one of my favourites.
For a long time I had a problem with the lyrics of In the Bleak midwinter. OK, the final verse is great but “in the bleak mid-winter”? Really? When was there ever a bleak winter in the Holy Land that froze water as hard as iron? And even if there were, what sort of muppet would call a plebiscite in the middle of it. Oh, er, hang on …
But then the penny dropped. It’s not a physical winter the song is about: it’s an allegory. It wasn’t the weather that was cold, it was the relationship between God and humanity.
Well, I couldn’t be a bell ringer if I didn’t include this carol. It also reminds me how my childhood village church shared a vicar with the neighbouring village. At Christmas both churches would join congregations for the carol services. One church traditionally sang the chorus line twice while the other sang it only once, resulting in much confusion.
Many carols have a standard metre – they have the same number of beats per line as many other songs. This means that they can be easily sung to other tunes. Fans of I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue may recognise this game as “one song to the tune of another”.
So I will leave you with While Shepherd’s Watched to the tune of Ilkley Moor.