The members of my tutor group seemed to know about it before I did – next Wednesday morning we have a carol service. With the exception of a couple of students whose family do not celebrate Christmas, the two hundred students of Year 7 will go to a local church to sing the old favourites. The one consolation is that there will not be a nativity play to accompany the music.
Fifty years ago, our Christmas carols were accompanied by tea towels and old curtains as we tried to re-capture the spirit of the Nativity story. By the time of moving from the infant room to the junior room at our primary school, alternative lyrics were well known for such carols as “While shepherds watched their flocks by night,” and “We three kings.”
The school’s annual Christmas production was a welcome diversion from the grind of the usual subjects, but there was no sense of it being anything more than a nice tradition. We would walk in pairs across the village green to the stony coldness of the parish church and present our version of a story that grew dull with the passing years. Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar provided some distraction, dressed in blue or red silk curtains and wearing shiny paper crowns, they were each expected to sing their respective verses of “We three kings,” an experience at once unpleasant and humorous to boys sat in the church.
Christmas lost its lustre in teenage years, the 1970s were a bad time economically and few people in our community went to church for whatever spiritual consolation the Feast of the Nativity might bring. There was a sense of being like Thomas Hardy and wishing the imagination and sense of magic of the early years could be recovered:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
But kneeling oxen and children wrapped in gaudy colours were the problem, there is nothing in the Biblical account of the Christmas story that suggests anything other than hardship and violence. Telling it as it was would not have made a nice tale for children (and would be unacceptable now, in our times of sensitivity and correctness), but it might have made Christmas into something altogether different from what it has become.
It will be interesting to see how the story is presented next week.