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A Magazine for Sheffield

The Joy of Christmas: Sheffield's Carol Heritage

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When we think of Christmas carols, it's likely that what first springs to mind is a tune written down in Victorian England, when the first books of carols were published, or a pop hit which has made it into the canon. Victorian carols are nearly all hymns, taken from contemporary choirs.

When those church choirs and their formal style of singing, very familiar to us today, came into being they replaced the much older Georgian institution of 'west gallery music'. This was four-part vocal harmony with medieval roots, taught mostly by ear so that everyone could participate, regardless of literacy, and often faster-paced than the hymns we know now.

The taught-by-ear quality of the music meant that each parish had slightly different versions of the same songs. Each song was adjusted for individual parish tastes, sometimes with brand new tunes. The stiff piety of modern English hymns is not the choir music of 200 years ago, but an invention of a more solemnly ritualistic Victorian church, where the comparatively rowdy, widely illiterate, heretically polyphonic working-class choirs were unwelcome and driven into another social setting altogether: the pub.

It's at the pub that those hymns have stayed to this day, at least here in Sheffield and its surrounding villages. Just as Victorian hymns have become our canon of Christmas carols, so local west gallery compositions, preserved through the continuation of oral tradition, have become the Sheffield area canon of village carols. Starting in November, pubs across the Peak District host weekly congregations of locals who come together to sing the old songs for a few hours.

It's at the pub that those hymns have stayed to this day

The pub setting is the clearest marker of what makes these carols so special. They're a community bonding moment, a deeply informal social gathering, yet all the more sacred for it. They don't discriminate. To attend a village carol sing is to know the rich joy of many different melodic lines, enhanced by the fact that previous knowledge of the tune is no deterrent to enthusiastic participation. All are welcome, although those who come as spectators rather than participants are frowned upon. The purpose of the pub sings is not to perform for an audience but to sing together, in a communal way which is difficult to describe but deeply physically fulfilling.

There are groups, such as the Worrall Male Voice Choir, which do perform the carols for audiences, and wonderfully so. It's at their concerts and many like them where spectators are encouraged. Thanks in large part to their efforts, the enthusiasm is spreading. Artists like Kate Rusby and Jon Boden have in the past recorded versions of village carol songs, and in recent years congregations of carollers have begun to meet around the world to sing carols in the Sheffield area tradition, most often out of the book The Joy of Christmas, transcribed and compiled by the Worrall choir.

The book represents the carols mostly as the Worrall group sings them. There are many different tune settings of the words "while shepherds watched their flocks by night", each a different oral tradition with its own unique history. Depending on which sing you attend, different verses will be sung or skipped from each song, and different notes added or dropped.

Despite these idiosyncrasies, one thing is universally consistent: the village carols are loud, inclusive by nature and mission, unconcerned with perfection, cozy and by far the best thing about Christmas.

Alice Flanagan

A list of carol sings in Sheffield and North Derbyshire in the run-up to Christmas.

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