Last night I sang in a carol service, many people together indoors, exhaling an anxiety-inducing whirl of aerosols. Was it sensible? I’m not sure: we did our lateral flow tests, but you never know. Could I resist? Absolutely not. Living abroad, I would become deeply melancholy at this time of year if I couldn’t sing carols. I’m not religious, but something about, I suppose, the very precise way they conjure a nested sequence of times and places always moves me. There are French-language Christmas carols but they never gave me the intense, heart-swelling nostalgia I get from those I grew up with. I mean, one of them is called What is that pleasant smell?, or “What’s that nice smell?” Surely that is something you would ask on entering a kitchen where a delicious cassoulet is cooking, not a stable to adore the Christ child?
Although I was delighted to do some proper Christmas singing at last, when the running order was circulated, I started pulling Scrooge-like faces and making sour comments, determined to check the gift horse’s molars. I have opinions on carols. Lots of them.
First, I believe there are two types of good carol: deeply weird and sombre, and what I would describe as “shouty bangers”. The weird ones have mysticism and strangeness, a sense of the palpable, dangerous winter darkness that makes all that miracle stuff pop. I love lyrics such as “Dread caverns of the grave” and “Nether hell” (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel), “bitt’r as any gall” (The Holly and the Ivy) or “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb”, the only redeeming bit in the otherwise tedious We Three Kings. Obscure words (what are “oblations”?) are welcome, as are amazing visuals (“His wings as drifted snow / His eyes as flame” is gorgeous) and gratuitous Latin.
The second kind have a pulpit-thumping energy that leaves the singer hoarse and sweaty, however cold the venue. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing combines shoutiness and, in the full version, baffling lyrics (“bruise in us the serpent’s head”, anyone?). O Come, All Ye Faithful has the kind of chorus that builds and builds until you go home with a sore throat no Strepsil can touch. Although not strictly a carol, the advent hymn Hills of the North, Rejoice includes the line “Shout while ye journey home”, taking it into the God tier. Mention of sin, Satan or Herod gets bonus points in either category.
As for the bad, I don’t want schmaltz and easy sentimentality: earn my tears, dammit. Away in a Manger is saccharine (and the “fit us for heaven” bit is sinister); Little Donkey perhaps even worse. Yes, I will almost certainly cry at Silent Night, but I will be furious at both myself and the carol (and good luck getting that “peace” bit at the end of the first verse not to sound like a beast in pain). I considered whether the use of the word “little” is a red flag, but it features in the lovely Coventry Carol, though this is less a carol than a hauntingly beautiful lament for the massacre of the innocents (festive!).
Anything that summons a vision of muttonchop whiskers or fur tippets is problematic, threatening a dyspeptic overdose of jollity. I enjoy Ding Dong Merrily on High, but disapprove of my own enthusiasm. We Wish You a Merry Christmas used to cause my mother to fling open the front door when shifty youths came round carol singing for cash and hiss with steely intensity, “That is not a carol – sing another!”; I honour her memory by hating it. Once in Royal David’s City’s “Christian children all should be / Mild, obedient, good as he” is the worst kind of Victoriana: I imagine – doubtless unfairly – its author writing the line while an urchin cleaned his chimney.
I raised the good carol/bad carol question on Twitter and stirred a good-humoured hornet’s nest, spanning everything from the best setting of In the Bleak Midwinter (Darke, but it’s irrelevant, as Christina Rossetti’s assertion that “my heart” is an appropriate gift for an infant is unacceptable) to punctuation in God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen. A day later, people are still volunteering their loathing of The Twelve Days of Christmasand love of O Holy Night: it’s been a delightful distraction from, well, everything.
In the end, of course, I loved every second of the concert, ending the evening teary and tight-throated (hopefully emotion not Omicron). It was a pinprick of bright joy in the darkness, just like the best carols.