DUNGWORTH, England (CNS) — In a steamy pub room of this muddy greystone village, a crowd of revelers, young and old, press up against a portable organ, singing lustily, beer mugs in hand.
“At Jacob’s well, a stranger sought his drooping frame to cheer. Samaria’s daughter little thought that Jacob’s God was near!”
Through the ancient windows, distant lights twinkle over a frosty hillside, where Loxley Valley runs down to the wintry chimneys of industrial Sheffield.
No one knows for sure how long community carols have been sung at Dungworth’s Royal Hotel, but they’ve been documented since the 19th century and are a staunchly defended local tradition.
“Changes happen slowly here — though people come and go, the repertoire stays much the same,” David Eyre, who’s organized caroling since the 1960s, told Catholic News Service. “Hardly anyone reads music and we don’t rehearse, nor do we get any help from local government. It’s something we do that’s ours, and we’re very proud of it.”
Today, the Royal Hotel forms part a caroling heritage with deep roots in British folk history, reflecting the creativity of simple people who lacked education but often were highly talented.
Although musical tastes have evolved over the generations, some experts think the carols sung in places like this have a freshness and expressiveness often lacking in the standardized versions of mainstream churches.
“It’s often said these lesser-known carols are rustic and rough-edged, but this simply isn’t true,” said Ian Russell, formerly editor of Britain’s Folk Music Journal.
“Since they originated among the music-loving cobblers, tailors and blacksmiths of early modern times, they may not have much formal syntax or classical finesse. But they’re often of a high musical standard, with complex, evocative harmonies delivered by fine, full-bodied voices. It’s an activity everyone can participate in and gain benefit from,” he said.
English carols like “Good King Wenceslas” and “The Holly and the Ivy” began to appear in late medieval times, as ordinary churchgoers, barely understanding the Latin-language Mass, sought to make sense of a faith central to their lives.
Curious, apocryphal narratives emerged, such as in the 14th-century “Cherry Tree Carol,” in which Mary asks Joseph to pick her cherries in an orchard, or in “The Bitter Withy,” which imagines the Child Jesus being chastised by his mother after causing three haughty young lords to drown in a river.
Although English carols had become the norm by the late 16th century, their spread was halted by the rise of Puritanism, when only psalms were allowed in churches. However, folk carols were passed on, both orally and via broadsheets. After Britain’s monarchy was restored in 1660, they were again sung in the west galleries of rural churches.
Contemporary composers such as John Playford, better known for his dances, pitched in with new carols. So did Charles Wesley, brother of the founder of Methodism.
Village carols were also popular in the Catholic parishes of Ireland, where the Franciscan nationalist, Bishop Luke Wadding (1588-1657), founder of Rome’s Pontifical Irish College, introduced the Sussex Carol (“On Christmas Night all Christians Sing”).
The carols were taken to Australia and New Zealand and to America’s Appalachian Mountains, where folk music traditions remain strong. In Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, a caroling association, dating from the 1840s, still greets Christmas with English village carols.
Before hymnbooks came into use, carols were typically sung in parts, using harmonies and fugues. They reflected local ways of life and drew on fishing and farming vocabulary; and since they were sung in the streets on Christmas morning, many still begin with invocations such as “Arise, arise!”
Britain’s caroling tradition was dealt a new blow in the 1840s, when the reforming Oxford Movement set out to rid the predominant Anglican Church of England of secular influences. The west gallery choirs and bands were replaced by formal organs and choirs. In 1861, their repertoire was formally expunged from a new official “Hymns Ancient and Modern.”
As before, however, the carols survived.
Musicians, expelled from the churches, reassembled in local pubs, and carols were copied and passed around.
Most of today’s best-known carols were popularized only in the late 19th century, with help from composers such as Arthur Sullivan and Isaac Watts, as part of the Victorian celebration of Christmas.
Russell, the folk anthropologist, said village carols form part of a living tradition, in which, even without realizing it, most English-speaking Christians are steeped.
“There are lessons to be learned … about allowing people to express their religious faith in their own way,” said Russell.
“Carols have always been a way of bringing church and community, religious and secular, together in the celebration of Christmas. They tell us where we’ve come from and who we are — and you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the determination of past generations not to give them up,” he told CNS.
In the 21st century, a village carols association is collecting and recording, while a West Gallery Music Association, with 400 singers and instrumentalists, is attempting to re-popularize the music once performed in village churches.
In Dungworth, Eyre said he is confident that, with young people joining in, village carols. will survive and prosper.
Linda Lambert, the Royal Hotel’s landlady, agrees.
“It must have started with village men coming out of the local chapel and into the pub,” Lambert told CNS Dec. 11.
“It’s great for business, since it now brings people here from all over the country, and sometimes from abroad. But what’s most important is keeping the tradition alive.”