Christmas carol services

[A post by Ian Jones]

By way of a seasonal post, I note an exchange of columns and correspondence in the Times over the singing of carols by those of uncertain or professedly no faith. It began with a column by Libby Purves, and generated a reply from David Aaronovitch and some correspondence. It revolves around Richard Dawkins’ recent comments about his general willingness to join in singing of carols, despite his (presumable) rejection of the words.

The debate became somewhat sidetracked by the matter of sections of the well-known carols which are without biblical basis – ‘the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’, or the snow lying about, deep and crisp and even. What I find more interesting is the continuing currency of this ‘cultural Christianity’. I can see that carol singing in schools or other non-church venues can be straightforward communal singing for its own sake, rather akin to that at football matches. What would be very interesting would be to tease out the path the parish carol service or Midnight Mass has taken over the last fifty years. In my own experience, the carol service is often treated in a quite unique fashion to the rest of the year’s worship, with the ‘regulars’ often choosing a different service. They seem to have elements of local social fixture, reunion, entertainment, and nostalgia, as well as perhaps (as Purves suggests) the leaving-open of a door to God, whoever He may be. I wonder when it is that these services cease to be part of the usual liturgical round, and become ‘guest’ services.

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