Christmas in song: carols and the countryside

123 jingle bells, lilies and sheet music

Carols are as much a part of a traditional Christmas as presents, Santa Claus and roast turkey. Join us in our seasonal choral celebration and discover how these magical midwinter melodies can be linked to rural life in Britain today.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

A hymn of proclamation for the birth of Christ, this carol was originally sung to a slow and solemn tune as preferred by the writer Charles Wesley, brother of John who founded the Methodist church. Over a century later, music by Mendelssohn was adapted to fit the lyric. Many carols have a heavenly quality today - especially when sung by the angelic voices of a choir - but in medieval times, they were banned in churches due to their association with carousing. Finding themselves without a venue, singers took their merry-making to the streets and began the tradition that is still practised in towns and villages around the country. Perhaps one of the most unusual carol-singing customs alive today belongs to Foolow in Derbyshire. On Christmas Day, the residents begin their tour of the village at the chapel and finish at the manor house, singing many carols along the way with lyrics and tunes that are unique to the area.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Once sung by town watchmen to earn extra money, this carol spreads good tidings and encourages us to take heart that all is well in the world. Traditionally the ‘resting' would have been at one of Britain's 15,000 country pubs and while many are still fine places to eat, drink and spend the night, many more are struggling to survive and almost two-thirds of villages have no pub. But help is at hand: the Pub is the Hub campaign offers communities valuable advice on keeping this rural essential.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night

Shepherds, such as those in the carol who are visited by ‘an angel of the lord', telling them of the saviour's birth in nearby Bethlehem, are rare in the British countryside today. But you can watch your own flock over the internet thanks to a clever scheme from Tiny Farmer (01223 246591). Sign up to the ‘Ewe and me' option and you can keep an eye on a specific ewe from its flock of Black Welsh Mountain sheep, through regular updates. By the end of the farming year, you'll know how good meat is produced and will receive a whole lamb, butchered and boxed ready for the freezer.

Ding Dong! Merrily On High...

...In heav'n the bells are ringing.' Children love the onomatopoeia of the opening line and the breathless state achieved when singing the extended ‘Gloria'. And nowhere will you hear such elaborate bell-ringing as in Britain, where it has developed into a complex, mathematical art. The practice of change-ringing, or ‘ringing the changes', is peculiar to our isles and involves the continuous shift in the sequence of changes - the methods used today have been built upon by those contained in two 17th-century books on the subject, which identified an astonishing 479,001,600 permutations were possible from just 12 bells. When ringers can't go into the tower, they often use hand bells to practise this ancient skill. The medieval custom of Tolling the Devil's Knell still takes place at All Saints Parish Church in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. At 11pm this Christmas Eve, the bells will chime 2,012 times, one for every year since the birth of Christ.

Silent Night

The story goes that on Christmas Eve in 1818, the organ in the church of the Bavarian town of Oberndorf breathed its last, so the curate and organist wrote a carol to be sung accompanied by guitar instead. True or not, ‘Stille Nacht' is a firm favourite at carol services. In many parts of the British countryside the nights are still silent and all is still calm. The Campaign to Protect Rural England, which has been making a noise about peace and quiet since publishing its tranquillity maps in 1995, reports that Northumberland is the most tranquil county. Tranquillity is not necessarily the same as silence. CPRE's survey showed views vary and include sights as well as sounds - seeing a natural landscape, hearing birdsong and peace and quiet were the most common definitions.

O Come, All Ye Faithful

The genesis of the original Latin version of ‘Adeste, Fideles' is shrouded in obscurity but there's no doubt that most carol concerts will include this universally loved hymn. For many of us, Christmas may be one of the few times of year that we go to church, but we hate to think of these beautiful places of worship that lie at the heart of our rural communities being left to crumble. According to The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), 20 to 30 churches shut their doors for good each year in England alone. But by bringing those that are no longer used for regular worship back into the community, these historic landmarks can be saved. Fourteenth-century St Mary's in Redgrave, Suffolk, for example, now hosts art exhibitions, gardening lectures and plays. Go to www.visitchurches.org.uk.

Little Donkey, Little Donkey...

...On the dusty road/Got to keep on plodding onwards/With your precious load.' Written by Eric Boswell, who died just before Christmas last year, the song describes Mary's journey to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey, the traditional beast of burden. In Britain, donkeys have a more frivolous, seaside association, but during winter these much-loved members of the horse family take their own holidays. John Nuttall, whose family has been offering traditional rides on Lincolnshire beaches for more than 100 years (www.donkeytackuk.com), explains: "Once the summer season ends, families all over Lincolnshire take them in over the winter." He works with The Donkey Sanctuary (01395 578222; www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk) in Devon to find foster carers. If you are tempted to take in a pair (they must be kept in twos), you will need an acre of land with a shelter and a plentiful supply of hay and carrots.

O Little Town Of Bethlehem

Inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night, this hymn is a must for children's carol concerts. There are 16 towns and villages across the world that have adopted the name of Jesus' birthplace, and one lies in the farming county of Carmarthenshire. Visitors flock to the village of Bethlehem to have cards franked with the Christmas stamp at the post office, which opens its doors every day during much of Advent (usually it opens for just one afternoon per week). Make sure you support your post office this year - visit www.postoffice.co.uk.

Once In Royal David's City

The traditional opener to the nine lessons and carols, this carol was written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, wife of the Bishop of Derry, to help teach her young godsons by using the language of verse. It is part of Hymns for Little Children, a collection containing other famous songs of praise including ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful'. Our own St David's in Pembrokeshire was granted city status by the Queen in 1994. The presence of a 12th-century cathedral, on the site of a 6th-century monastery, clinched the decision for what is actually a small village perched on the beautiful Pembrokeshire Heritage Coast and home to just 1,600 people, making it the smallest city in Britain. It holds the shrine of St David, the patron saint of Wales.

In The Bleak Midwinter

This beautiful poem was not originally intended as a hymn or carol but the haunting melody has ensured its everlasting popularity. However, it rings less true than in the past in Britain as (with the exception of last year) milder winters are becoming the norm. Met Office records show average winter temperatures are substantially higher than in the 1950s and 1960s. Consequently spring is arriving sooner with reports of butterflies hatching up to two months early, swallows who haven't bothered to fly south, frogspawn found before Christmas and lawns that need cutting all year round. Help with phenology records that date back hundreds of years by recording the first signs of spring at www.naturescalendar.org.uk.

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