12 shows at Christmas: A Cause for Caroling

Christmas decorations of singers The tradition of caroling goes back to pre-Victorian times

If you ever wondered about how we ended up with a tradition of Christmas carols in Britain, this 10-part series will tell you and hopefully have you singing by the time it wraps up, says producer Tom Alban.

Sing its praises to us

Choral conductor and scholar Jeremy Summerly has a stab at charting the progress of carols in Britain. It's a fascinating journey because they've always hovered on the fringes. Many people think of them as church music because of King's College, Cambridge, and the myriad carol services going on up and down the country every Christmas. But they've never been entirely comfortable in a church setting and you'd have been more likely to hear them in pubs and in homes in years gone by. It was only when the Victorians tamed them and brought them into an ecclesiastical setting that they became the tidy items they appear to be today.

Go to a pub in South Yorkshire and you'll find a very different breed of carol being sung, with all the passion and enthusiasm you might expect from a Welsh Rugby crowd in full voice. These carols have their roots in a pre-Victorian caroling tradition first portrayed by Thomas Hardy in his first book Under the Greenwood Tree. It's a wonderful Christmas read if you fancy something different.

Moment to listen for

We visited the Dorset County museum, which houses the old carol books that Thomas Hardy's father and grandfather used as they went round on Christmas Eve singing carols to the village folk of his native West Country. Folk musician Tim Laycock and Jeremy sang from the old books carefully copied out by members of the quire some two hundred years ago and sung by lantern light.

Carol you'd rather never hear again
Donkey in Greece The donkey's role at Christmas should not be underestimated

The Donkey Carol. Sorry, Donkey. No hard feelings.

Your favourite carol

The list is very long. The whole series was inspired by the fact that there were so many different carols from such a wide range of musical genres - folk, semi-classical, high church, Victorian, Medieval. At the moment I'm very fond of the carol we've unearthed - St Godric's Carol. Listen to the first programme for a taster.

Will the show fill us with Christmas spirit?

If it doesn't I get a big fat zero from all four judges.

What fills you with Christmas spirit?

Christmas spirit. And the only way to get it is to wassail, a Norse version of saying cheers, to which the answer should be drink hail.

  • A Cause for Caroling starts on December 9, Radio 4, 1.45pm


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