Carols in church : a partial guide

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.

Youths singing
singing with warmth and colour
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?
Saint Joseph with tree
Same legend, different tree; this is a palm tree, pretending to be the cherry tree in The Cherry Tree carol

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
Banquet with sheep on table
singing and banqueting at the same time

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.

Angel choir
angel choirs enabling a singalong
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).

carols are for dancing as well as singing
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
David touching tongue
David , to whom we owe so much

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.

The Gentle Guide to my Christmas music

A great and mighty wonder….every year

crib scene in illuminated capital
Sing choirs of angels….and everyone else too

Christmas is another all-nighter for many choirs, like Easter but a slightly different shape.  Instead of the enormous Easter Vigil followed by a day Mass on the Sunday, at Christmas we have a sequence of four (shorter) Masses spread through the night and into the next day. Many, possibly even most, parishes kickstart the celebrations at Christmas with half an hour of carols before Midnight Mass (which doesn’t have to be at midnight any more). So that’s a lot of singing, at a time of year when many people already have sore throats and churches are cold.

Advent and the run-up to Christmas

Female charioteer with four in hand
Me keeping the Advent Alleluias together; the black horse is actually dark pink for Gaudete Sunday

By the time you get to Christmas, you’ve already sung four weeks’ worth of Advent music.  Advent is much shorter than Lent, and the emphasis is on positive waiting and anticipation rather than moving slowly forward through anticipation and dread to new hope, so it feels completely different, and I take my cue from traditional Christmas music to get the mood right.  Even people who don’t sing normally will sing carols, so simple tuneful music is what I am trying to offer, hoping to persuade them to carry on singing once they have started with a carol verse or two….

Christmas music rooted in carols

Volmar having a vord with a recalcitrant Advent Alleluia

A lot of carols (and folk music in general) are in 3/4, and it’s easy to use this time signature to encourage forward movement, so the Advent Alleluia is in 3/4 rather than the more usual 4/4. It’s got some bounce in the rhythm, but the tune is simple, and in the middle of where most people’s voices are comfortable.   This is important, and I do try to think about where people’s voices naturally fall, mainly so that they can’t use that as a cop-out for not singing.

Deck the church with Christmas Alleluias

As soon as we move into the Christmas music, we have the Christmas Alleluia instead of the Advent one.  If you haven’t tried it with the descant, please do, because it’s really easy, but it sounds full of joy and excitement.  People have been singing the Advent Alleluias for four weeks, so they will sit up and pay attention when you give them a new one to sing.  The Christmas Alleluia is meant to sound like a peal of bells, like the choruses in Angels we have heard on high and Ding dong merrily.

Christmas, -mas, -mas, -mas
1 : the Vigil Mass

There are four Masses available for singing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The first is in the evening of Christmas Eve.  It is often regarded as especially for children (and people who don’t want to be out too late in the cold).  Our parish uses it as the Christingle Mass.  It’s an interesting set of music to arrange, because it needs to be jubilant and celebratory while not jumping the gun, as Jesus isn’t born yet.  So that knocks out nearly all carols, which should wait until the next day, as there’s no procession to the crib or similar.  But by now the anticipation is at fever-pitch, we all know what’s going to happen, and the excitement catches in your throat, just like when labour starts and you’re thinking that you are finally going to meet this small person that no-one has been able to hold yet except you.

The psalm for the Vigil (88/89) is joyful but still measured, talking about the history that has led up to this point and the covenant which is being fulfilled.  It almost feels like checking the paperwork at the hospital.  It’s still a question of sorting things out before the baby arrives, making sure everything is ready.   The Alleluia keeps the emphasis of this Vigil Mass clear, putting the stress on its first word  ‘Tomorrow…’, but the excitement should be fizzing and the joy is only a step away.

I do not know why the Canadians have alternative Responses for all the Christmas psalms, but I think it must be because they are in the middle of a revision of their Lectionary, so I’ve just set them, and the choices are up to you.

2 : Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass itself is a marathon, starting (usually) with half an hour of carols.  Some of our most beloved carols are old, some are difficult to sing, several are pitched to make it easier to play the accompaniment than to reach the top notes, and many members of the choir may have colds.  I have tried not to give you too many high notes to worry about, because descants and Hark the herald take quite a toll on the soprano line.  But we need to express joy here, and the music is trying to make this easy to do.  The psalms helpfully equate joy with singing, so we have a head start.

mediaeval animals playing pump organ
If the people don’t sing, even the animals will have to take to the orgen

The Midnight Mass psalm has a Response drawn from elsewhere in the Bible, which doesn’t always work, but does here, as it’s our old friend Psalm 95/96, but with a very careful selction of verses.  The psalm starts by encouraging everyone to sing, and then extends the list of the everyone to include the sea, the land and even the trees to shout for joy because – and then the Response explains the reason : Today a saviour has been born to us; he is Christ the Lord.

Angel bring Christmas message to shepherds
Good news is even better when you sing it

One of the Canadian Responses fits exactly to the tune of the chorus in Adeste fideles, so I had to write another psalm setting so that you could have a 4/4 Response.  So there you have two quite different options, because the other version of the words is irresistibly 3/4 and like other carols.  Adeste is originally a Latin hymn, rather than a carol, so a bit more staid and less skippy, but the other versions should all rollick along.  This is great news, this is exciting!

To add to the fun, the strophes are different lengths, which means I can’t compress the UK and the OZ versions, so you have lots of pages.  At least there are usually lots of people around in the choir loft on Christmas night, so you should be able to find someone to turn over for you if you are playing the organ.  The US and CAN versions have been slightly regularised, so there are compacts of those, but I can’t fit the last Response on to the compact sheets, so make sure you check for Recorder trills or twiddles on the non-compact form for the last verse, because it’s a shame to leave them out.

3 :  Mass at Dawn

This Mass always seems slightly like a poor relation.  It’s for the people who couldn’t come to the previous Masses and who can’t be there for the later morning one (after the stockings and breakfast and putting the turkey on).  It’s a shorter psalm, the next one in the Psalter, as it happens (96/97), and the readings are short too, because this Mass is for the noble souls who have to be on duty in hospitals or fire stations or are helping other people at Christmas.   I don’t want you to miss out on the joy and the excitement, and I think this is a great psalm even if it only has two verses.   But the singers in the choir loft may be feeling a bit weary, so there’s no pyrotechnics and it doesn’t go very high; just a simple bouncy tune reminiscent of a Christmas carol.

Depending on your translation, you have either ‘islands’ or ‘coastlands’ rejoicing in this psalm.  I like to think of the islands picking up their frothy petticoats and twirling away to the dance in the music in honour of the event.

4 :  Mass during the Day

And here’s the last Mass of the day, after which choirs and celebrants are all off-duty and there’s only little things like getting the Christmas dinner to worry about.  This Mass tends to have the most relaxed atmosphere, because the baby has been born and the celebrations have already started.  We move on to the next psalm in the Psalter (97/98), which again tells us to sing and ring out our joy.

It’s interesting to compare this psalm with the one at Midnight Mass.  They are both invitations to sing to the Lord, but the tense has shifted in the day psalm.  Now we are specifically singing about what the Lord has (just) done.  It’s all solid immediate past tenses: he has done wondrous deeds, he has won victory, he has made known his salvation, he has revealed his justice, he has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness, and all the ends of the earth have seen it.  Everything has been sorted out.   This psalm is pure celebration, and keeps repeating its imperatives : in four verses, we are told to sing five times, and even encouraged to take up specific instruments, melodious but loud.  We need brass, for ‘trumpets and the sound of the horn’ are demanded, and quite right too.  Enjoy the moment.  There’s (another) wonderful U.A.Fanthorpe poem  BC:AD  about this exact moment.

Refreshing the familiar

All the psalms for Christmas are familiar ones, which recur throughout the year, because they are calls to praise.  The Response and the Alleluia verses are often the only part that is specifically Christmassy.  This is good because it helps us to remember that we are meant to be singing these joyful words all year round, but they should have a fresh immediacy at the Christmas masses.  It’s happening right now, this event which causes us to rejoice for all the rest of the year, this event which makes our hearts dance as we sing the Christmas music.  Remember that carols were dances as well as songs, and sing them that way.  Merry Christmas.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Christmas dancing, about 1300 AD. Note the little hop : that’s my counter-rhythm!

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