December 6 2020



One of the main attractions of Advent & Christmas, is this year the aspect of the festive season largely forbidden to us. We are unable to sing carols together in our places of worship, as a precaution.

Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent, and usually churches and chapels, and indeed the shops, would have been noisy with Christmas tunes, and carols would have been part of them. They are one of the few genuinely religious elements of Christmas which survive in the prevailing culture, and which remain widely popular.

There have been other times, however, when carols have not been the familiar face of Advent. During the Puritan period for example, carols were distinctly out of fashion and out of favour. Puritanism found it difficult to reconcile the twin ideas of religion and joyousness.  And it was not until the Stuart Restoration when many seasonal songs were brought back into popularity.

We should note the difference between a carol and a hymn. Christmas hymns are essentially devotional, whereas the carol traditionally has a more light-hearted and festive impulse. Some carols are short, while others ramble on like an old ballad. Some are narratives and tell a story, others are dramatic or personal, and yet others are almost entirely secular.

Interestingly, the word ‘carol’ originally meant a dance, a circle dance accompanied with singing. Dancing and singing have been associated with worship from the earliest times. In the Old Testament, King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant. Dancing was eventually dropped in Christian worship, but the carol remained.

Although we always associate carols with Christmas, they are in fact not necessarily confined to this one festival. There are carols for Easter, Whitsun, Spring and Harvest, and for other times, but with the exception of Christmas, these are rarely sung today.

The birthplace of the true carol was probably Italy, and at a time when religion generally was at something of a low ebb. The services of the church were all in Latin, and the bible too. That eccentric saint, St Francis of Assisi, revolutionised the communication of religious ideas by preaching homely sermons to the people. He touched the popular imagination, and was a softening and humanising influence. He does not appear to have written any carols himself, but some of his friars composed songs in the common speech, based on bible stories, – so these were in the spirit of the carols.

Originally the doctrine of the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, was taught to the untutored people in pictorial fashion, by simple drama and song. (Indeed the birthplace of all theatre and drama, lies in these early representations of scriptural stories.) Stable and manger were set up (as they often still are today) in churches at Christmas, and the story re-enacted before the worshippers. Little lullabies were composed for the mother to sing to her baby. The shepherds’ story and that of the wise men from the east were not left out.. All these subjects became the stuff of carolling.

There are many old carols which do not confine themselves to the gospel stories; they gather legendary lore, often from sources now lost.
Sometimes we find Eastern stories adapted to Western surroundings. For instance the Cherry Tree carol originally featured, not a cherry tree, but a date palm.
In this carol, Joseph is an old man, walking with his young bride  in a garden where “cherries were growing on every spray.”
Joseph is overcome with jealous thoughts about Mary’s pregnancy, and when Mary asks him to pull down some cherries for her, Joseph shows that he doubts the truth of the angel’s message to her, about the baby soon to be born.
His doubts are soon rebuked, for

Mary said to the cherry tree,
Bow down to my knee,
That I may gather cherries
By one and two and three.
The uppermost bough then
Bowed down to her knee;
Now you may see, Joseph,
Those cherries were for me.

From its Italian roots the carol travelled across Europe, but never losing its simplicity and essential joyousness.

Many of the traditional carols that we are now familiar with and sing together were not originally intended to be a part of religious worship services. Even so, these secular carols are almost always linked with the moral sentiments of charity and goodwill.

A rich legacy of carols has been bequeathed to us by the so-called Middle Ages, a period often thought of as being rather hard and rough. I wonder why it is that we today, in our comparatively luxurious lives, seem to find it so difficult to reflect even that level of straightforward happiness?

The composer Sir Walford Davies, reflecting on our legacy, said that singing our carols “releases our gentlest thoughts about the Lord of Christendom, and also links us up with some nice old fellow who, in writing the carol, felt as we do, some eight hundred years ago !”

Carols are living history, and there is every good reason to preserve and to enjoy them, even if we have to wait to  do so, until next year. Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period