Bedecked with Bay and Rosemary
This is a little interlude about Christmas songs and carols. It is definitely about Christmas past but some may date from a little later than the fifties. All Christmas memories become a sort of global memory to me, so let’s not worry too much about dates.
We used to sing carols much more then – at church, at school and sometimes, at home. Sadly, carols are becoming a little obsolete now. With the dawn of records – that’s what we used to call vinyl – and CDs etc., we are much more likely to be singing a popular modern tune.
Two of the early songs I remember were Mary’s Boy Child sung by Harry Belafonte in 1956, and The Little Drummer Boy (or Carol of the Drum), also from the late fifties. I’m having difficulty tracing early versions of Little Drummer Boy, but I think my early memories come from the Beverley Sisters’ version of 1959.
The Rock ‘n roll era brought Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, sung by Brenda Lee in 1958. From about the 1960s, pop songs have appeared regularly aimed at the Christmas shopping clientele, including the re-release of Mary’s Boy Child by Boney M in 1978. Prominent in my mind as I write is All I want for Christmas is You, by Mariah Carey, the song which featured in the 2003 Christmas film Love Actually.
I do like some of the more modern tunes but I still prefer the old-fashioned carols. (Grumpy Old Man!)
The Streets of Ilford
My main memories of carol singing come from the first half of the sixties. (I won’t always restrict what I say to the fifties.) For most of my childhood, I went to church at St Andrew’s. I also went to Cubs and Scouts there, sang in the choir there for a few years, and spent a few years going to their Youth Club. (Given the number of saints available, it always seemed strange that our two nearest churches were both called St Andrew’s.)
The Youth Club always did the same thing in the two to three weeks before Christmas. We sang carols in the street and collected for charity. We would move along the street, stopping under a lamp-post to sing two or three verses of a carol, while one or two volunteers went along ringing doorbells.
They were mostly familiar songs, always from the same books of music. There was a rehearsal evening at Church and then we sang for about two weeks – two hours every evening, Monday to Saturday.
It was a quiet area of town and I don’t remember ever being disturbed by traffic of any kind. I assumed that the aim was to cover the whole parish. We certainly covered a lot of streets. Of course, for the members of the Youth Club, it also offered a chance for the boys and girls to get to know each other. Singing under a clear sky and discussing the constellation of Orion could be quite romantic. Perhaps that’s why I remember it!
Nine Lessons and Carols
The still familiar service of Nine Lessons and Carols has always been one of the high points of Christmas. It combines familiar words with the opportunity to sing along to all the well-known hymns and carols.
The format was defined in 1880, and revised in 1919, specifying precisely the nine Lessons. (In Church parlance, a Lesson is a reading from the Bible.) Those who have been paying attention will know by now that these were always from the Authorized Version.
Since 1928, King’s College, Cambridge have held this service in their chapel every year, sticking to the prayers and Authorized Version lessons in their original wording. The service mixes familiar hymns (sung by the choir and congregation) and less familiar carols (sung by just the choir). In general the hymns are the same every year and the carols change, normally including one or more brand new carols. It always starts with a processional version of ‘Once in Royal David’s City,’ with the opening verse sung as a solo by a treble chorister. Several of the choristers will have rehearsed this solo but the chosen one does not know he has been selected until a few seconds before the start.
The service from King’s is always broadcast live on the radio and it continues to mark the start of Christmas to me. We drive to visit relatives, leaving on the dot as the solo begins on our car radio, in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. As we drive, we sing along to the familiar Christmas hymns. I recognize some of the choral anthems from a period in my life in a school chapel choir. I love all the familiar words of the service, especially the Bidding Prayer and the Ninth Reading, which starts ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …’ Somehow modern English versions don’t have the same poetic effect.
I can’t claim that this habit dates back to the fifties but I do remember our local version of the service. Our local church, St Andrew’s, always used to have this service on the Sunday before Christmas, in a similar but shortened form. (They didn’t have the help of King’s College Chapel Choir!) I presume that this tradition continues now. It was then an ever-popular service, which brought in the highest congregation of the year. The pews of the church were packed and extra chairs were brought into the aisles.
I suspect that modern churches have their own versions of this, with more modern carols and readings from modern versions of the Bible. I will stick to the King’s College version.
The Boar’s Head
The tradition of eating a Boar’s head at Christmas pre-dates our chicken and turkey, going back hundreds of years. Several places continue this annual tradition. My title today comes from one of my favourite carols, a lesser know one from our Youth Club repertoire then. The carol, aptly entitled, ‘The Boar’s head’ apparently originates from Queen’s College, Oxford, where they continue this annual event.
It is what is known as macaronic verse, mixing English and Latin. The carol starts:
The boar’s head in hand bear I;
Bedecked with bay and rosemary;
So I pray you my masters be merry;
Quot estis in convivio.”
Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century. I prefer the language and music of the first Queen Elizabeth!
Not quite finished with Christmas reminiscing. I may have left some of the best bits until last …