Saturday, 18 December 2010

Christmas Carols - our cultural heritage

This week, as it was the last week of school before Christmas, I decided to invite all my students to sing traditional Christmas carols in their lessons.  I thought that this would be an opportunity for them to have some fun singing songs they know well and enjoy.  So I dusted down my ancient but still serviceable book of Christmas carols and touted it around the various schools that I visit.  I did expect some students to refuse on the grounds of boredom - after all, they are teenagers.  But I didn't expect this....student after student looked down the list of carols and then said they didn't know any of them!

I'm not talking here about obscure pieces only performed by cathedral choirs and old fogies.  The list included such perennials as "O Come All Ye Faithful", "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night".

When I asked the students what Christmas songs they did know, they all knew contemporary songs such as Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" and Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody", and most knew non-religious winter songs such as "Jingle Bells" and "Frosty the Snowman".  They had learned these in primary school - but not, it seems, traditional Christmas carols.

There has been considerable pressure on primary schools to de-Christianise "Christmas".  The Christmas holidays are now "the Winter break", Nativity plays are now "Winter shows".  Schools are encouraged to celebrate Divali, Chanukah and Eid - but not Christmas.  I don't have a problem with cultural diversity - in fact I applaud and encourage it.  By all means, celebrate the festivals of other faiths - the more the merrier, particularly if it means that children do more music, more drama and more art, and generally have more fun in school.  But not at the expense of the main Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter (already airbrushed out of existence by the 6-term school system). Without them, much of our British musical and artistic heritage is lost.

I should declare an interest here.  I am a Christian myself.  However, my aim in promoting Christmas carols is not to spread the Christian message - frankly there are much better ways of doing that than singing songs about Baby Jesus.  My concern is with British culture.

Christmas carols are among the very few forms of traditional British music that are still widely known and performed.  Our traditional "folk" music long ago disappeared into folk clubs and singarounds attended mainly by bearded weirdos and middle-aged women.  The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music still insists that singing exam candidates must sing traditional songs (and includes a lot of traditional music, not just from Britain, in its syllabus) - kudos to them for this - but I would have to say that it is inordinately difficult to get children to learn these songs.  They simply aren't what they sing, either in school or at home.  The days are long gone when class singing was made up mainly of traditional songs and hymns, and there was a copy of the Community Song Book in every household.  Class singing now consists almost entirely of pop and show songs, and I struggle to get my students to sing anything written before about 1960. 

Our British musical culture is unique in the world and it is OLD! It didn't start with the Beatles - it goes back hundreds of years.  It is based around community choral singing and is enriched by our Christian heritage.  If we don't pass it on to our children then it will disappear, and we will be the poorer for it.

So this is an appeal, to school teachers - especially those in primary schools - parents and all those concerned with the education of the young.  Please don't deprive them of what is left of their birthright, our wonderful British musical heritage.  It's probably too late to save our traditional songs from relegation to the lunatic fringe, but there's still time to rescue our declining Christmas carol tradition.  Even if you personally don't believe a word of it, teach them songs about the Baby Jesus, the stable in Bethlehem, the shepherds and the star in the East.  Take them to your local church's Christmas carol service - even if you never go near the place at any other time.  Join in the carol singing with the Salvation Army Band outside your local shopping centre (and donate some money to charity while you're at it).  Watch Songs of Praise and Carols from Kings.  Hold Nativity plays with hordes of shepherds wearing tea towels and angels with tinsel halos singing "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks".  Above all -sing the carols yourself.  You never know, you might enjoy the experience!

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