Carol, carol gaily
Each year I rummage through my (large and still growing) collection of carol books, to check everything will be ready in time, and I get distracted by the Oxford Book of Carols‘ insistence on definitions and distinctions, as it goes into detail which most people presumably just skip over; but it is all actually fascinating stuff, and written by great men (then) working at the coalface. Section 2,page xv, starts with a truth we can all acknowledge : ‘The selection of carols is not so easy a task as perhaps might be imagined’. I think every Church musician would say a heartfelt Amen to that.
Is it a carol? No, it’s a hymn
Even defining a carol is difficult. Some people suggest that it must be a song also for dancing; it must be of a certain age; it must be popular rather than literary; it must have definite roots of place, and so on. The problem is that everyone can think of exceptions to every rule. Much ink has been spilt over the distinction between carols and hymns, but I’m not sure that it is a useful distinction (if it ever was), especially now when most parishes have only one music book which has to cover everything, and all the parish hymn books I can think of have had carols in for years.
How many carols can dance on the head of a pin?
We are blessed with a large number of carols (and hymns) in the English-speaking church, and I find the problem every year is getting as many as possible into the festive season. You can’t sing carols before the end of Advent, and you are unlikely to sing them beyond Candlemas; so that’s not so many Sundays when you can plan to sing them, though there are also some extra feastdays during this period (St. Stephen, and Mary the Mother of God, among others). You need to include particular favourites and requests (where possible) and cover as many groups of people as you can (small children who only know Away in a Manger, older people who feel cheated if you don’t include Adeste fideles, choir members who love singing Ding dong merrily, and my husband who will settle for either Good King Wenceslas or It came upon the midnight clear, but will be very upset if we don’t sing at least one of them).
Most people will come to only one of the Christmas Masses (up to four options, in many parishes), and they will all want to hear or preferably sing their favourite carols. But you need a bit of variety for the choir, and as I said, there is a lot of wonderful material. Squaring that circle is difficult.
Welcome, Yule, but not here, or just at the moment
There’s a large group of carols which I don’t think you can sing in church, and those are the ones which stress the Yule factor rather than anything religious. This can be diplomatically difficult, because some people will disagree with your classification. We wish you a merry Christmas is a good example, and various Wassail carols; The boar’s head in hand bring I starts like one of these, but has holy words later, and the same goes for I saw three ships, or Past three o’clock. That shows how tricky it can be, and I suspect that carol ‘services’ were invented partly to have the possibility of blurring the line. These are great carols for carol singing, it’s just difficult to fit them properly into one of the Christmas Masses. But every family Christmas needs a sing-song, partly for its nuisance factor as well for the sake of tradition; and of course, if you go out carol singing, you sing anything that will bring the money in, and the Yule carols are great for that.
Carols for other times of year
I’m not including in this discussion any of the ‘carols’ for different times of the year, like the Easter carols, the May carols, and carols from other parts of the Bible narratives (Job, Jacob, the Passion narratives, parables). I did say it was only a ‘partial’ guide. I’m thinking about Christmas carols as part of the liturgy over the Christmas season, even though many of the others are great carols; and even here, there is an exception, because many people love the Coventry carol (Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child) and would be sad not to include it, but the massacre of the innocents must be some time after the birth of Jesus, or Herod would not have included all babies under two.
Sweet singing in the quire
Our church, like many others, has a half-hour of carols before Midnight Mass starts. We try to keep the programme varied, but we also keep to the holy carols rather than the secular, just because it feels appropriate in church. And it’s before Midnight Mass, even if not by much, so we are still careful not to sing the most intensely triumphant ones. It helps to imagine the running order as telling a story, so we start gently with Once in Royal. That ‘Once’ is a clear sign that the story starts here, and you never need to apologise for old favourites at Christmas. We use Come, come, come to the manger for the procession to the crib, and we sing Adeste fideles as the first hymn of the Mass proper. There is plenty of room for others. We keep the gentle ones for Communion (Silent Night on Christmas night, Away in a Manger on Christmas Day, when there are more children). Hark the Herald is always our last hymn at the end of Mass, for several reasons. You have to have it because for many people it is a crucial element of Christmas, but the words are a celebration of what has just happened, rather than setting the scene like (say) O little town of Bethlehem. From a practical choir point of view, Hark the Herald is loud and high, even higher with the descant, and your sopranos will be grateful if that’s the last thing they have to sing (until the next day, at least).
Even more choices
You have to have some of the old carols, but for some people that means Victorian, whereas others want mediaeval. If you want something new to your choir and congregation, there are lovely Czech and Polish carols, as well as the more familiar French and German ones. You can adapt the wedding outfit couplet to carols too: something old, something new, something borrowed and instead of ‘blue’, I’d go for ‘snew’, because there are lots of great carols with snow in : In the bleak midwinter, See amid the winter’s snow, Good King Wenceslas, and add your own. Myself, I’m very partial to the macaronic German carols, where there are Latin lines mixed into the words : In dulci jubilo, Quem pastores, Unto us a boy is born, Angelus ad virginem, but I think this is because they have such wonderful tunes. The French gave us the carols with the long Gloria in the chorus, which everyone remembers from school (Angels we have heard in heaven, Ding dong merrily).
Get everyone singing
There are so many to choose from. Personally I’m not keen on the more operatic ones designed for soloists (O holy night) or an accomplished choir (Carol of the Bells, sorry, dear Ukrainians), or arranged so that the congregation can’t join in (several of the versions in Carols for Choirs). For many people, Christmas is the one time they come to church and know the tunes, and even some of the words, and I think we should lean into this at our Christmas Masses. Sing something trickier or more unfamiliar at Communion, while people are away from the pews, but give them lots of chances to feel part of a singing congregation, because that is so special at Christmas.
Don’t forget David
And sing the psalm, because the psalms for the Christmas season are exciting and jubilant, and should be sung. You will find suggested tunes for the Psalms and the Alleluias on our website and you can read more about my Christmas music in general if you would like. From lullabies to jolly celebrations, songs are one of the best ways to join in the Christmas festivities. And even if you don’t feel happy when you start, with so much still to do, after a carol or two, you will indeed feel merry like Christmas.