Surging demand for modern Christmas carols

King’s, Cambridge: The Christmas festival always includes a new, specially-commissioned carol.

Are modern carols better than the classics? This year, hundreds of new carols will be sung in concerts alongside old favourites — some using the Christmas story to tackle grave world issues.

Classic Christmas tunes like Silent Night and Away in a Manger are some of the most well known and loved songs. But get along to a carol concert this Christmas, and you could be treated to something a little unfamiliar.

That is due to a creative outburst of modern Christmas carols. As many as 300 new Christmas songs were written last year, with composers responding to massive public demand and commissions from churches and choirs.

Modern writers often infuse the Christmas story with contemporary themes. For example, The Flight links the travels of Mary and Joseph with the plight of modern-day refugees: “The sea is a graveyard / the beach is dry bones / the child at the station / is pelted with stones.” The chorus: “May Bethlehem / Give rest to them.”

Similarly Manchester Carols, a suite by poet Carol Ann Duffy, retells the Christmas story for the 21st century — with a particular focus on the issue of homelessness: “It would be a miracle indeed / If everyone who needs somewhere to sleep / could find a bed; / The tired, the lost, the homeless dispossessed.”

Though these issues are contemporary, they enter into an ancient tradition. It all started thousands of years ago when pagans would sing songs to mark the winter solstice. Some experts think the carol The Holly and the Ivy originated from a pagan harvest festival.

When Christianity arrived in Britain, the winter solstice celebration morphed into Christmas — and pagan songs were transformed into Christian hymns. By the Middle Ages, merry bands of “wassailers” would move from house to house singing carols similar to We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Many of the most famous carols were popularised by the Victorians. In 1880, Bishop Edward Benson devised the Nine Lessons and Carols service. It opened with a lone treble singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, and closed with a rousing rendition of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; it became a blueprint for carol concerts to this very day.

But are contemporary carols better than these classics?

Sing song merrily on high

Modern carols are more relevant, some say. Society is becoming less devout and more diverse. The songs’ messages of compassion for the most unfortunate are universal — whether you believe the Christmas story or not. What is more, carols with social purpose are more likely to inspire genuine acts of charity than catchy old tunes.

Tradition trumps novelty, others respond. In the 21st century, things are constantly changing and being updated. By singing classic carols, we can enjoy sharing in a more historic and lasting culture. Furthermore, it is the old songs that are best at prompting us to sing together in celebration — not dreary modern dirges.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite Christmas carol?
  2. Are modern songs better than classics?

Activities

  1. It is time for you to write your own Christmas carol! You can fill it with whatever meaningful words and images you like. You might choose to refer to Christmas traditions or to a social issue you are passionate about — or even combine the two. If you like you can perform it to the class.
  2. What is your favourite Christmas carol? Once you have decided do some research into it. When was it written/composed? Does it have any hidden or surprising meanings? Are there any famous performances of it?

Some People Say...

“There is no ideal Christmas; only the one Christmas you decide to make as a reflection of your values.”

Bill McKibben

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many traditional institutions will perform new Christmas carols this year. At the Royal Albert Hall’s Christmas Classics concert, Roxanna Panufnik’s newly composed A Cradle Song will be sung. BBC Radio 3 and King’s College, Cambridge are also running competitions for new carols.
What do we not know?
Whether these new songs will last through the years in the same way as the other traditional carols have. It is impossible to say what the best carol is, but in a 2010 poll by Classic FM, the British public voted O Holy Night as the nation’s favourite.

Word Watch

The Flight
Words written by poet George Szirtes, set to music by Richard Causton. Listen to it by following the first link under Become An Expert.
Manchester Carols
Music written by Sasha Johnson Manning. To hear the carols for yourself follow the second link in Become An Expert.
Pagans
People holding beliefs that differ from the major world religions. Pagans often believe in gods relating to nature, for example, the god of the sun.
Winter solstice
The shortest day of the year — usually around December 22 in the northern hemisphere.
The Holly and the Ivy
Holly and ivy are evergreen plants, meaning they remain green throughout the year. Consequently, to ancient pagans they symbolised hope and rebirth.
Arrived
Scholars think Christianity started to develop in Britain during the first century AD — although this is debated.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
The lyric “Oh, bring us some figgy pudding,” refers to the old tradition of wealthy landowners giving carol singers treats in exchange for their revelry and good wishes.