Carols provide a background for that other tradition of the Christmas season: shopping

During a conversation a few days ago a Church of England clergyman who has been helping our parish remarked that he was already suffering from carol fatigue. I knew exactly what he meant – or, to put it another way, an excess of “Ding Dong merrily on high” rang a bell with me.

The point about Christmas carols is that during the weeks leading up to Christmas, as well as during the Christmas season itself, they become all-pervading. Visit a shopping centre, and you will hear them blaring out as background music through the sound system. Visit the local supermarket and the same applies; though if you are lucky, as we were yesterday, you may find the carols being played by a live Salvation Army band.

For most people, however, the net effect is the same; the carols provide a background for that other tradition of the Christmas period, febrile shopping.

Advertising blitz

Families stock up with food as if they are about to be cast on to some kind of retail desert island. Choosing presents also often seems to be completely detached from reality. The advertisements exhort us to buy the “must have” gifts; at inflated prices. As a natural puritan (or as some people would doubtless say, a natural Scrooge) I react to such exhortations with the question “why must I have”?

The fact is: most of these essential items are things that I do not need, and would not like if I had them. Of course I am exaggerating. I am not really a grumpy old man (I hope) and I do realise — honest — that people positively enjoy giving presents.

Carols, too, are not just to be dismissed as background noise. For many people they really are an essential part of the Christmas season. Even in a country which can no longer be described as largely Christian — partly because it has many citizens from other faiths, and partly because this has become a far more secular society — the number of people who attend carol services is far greater than the number who regularly attend a church. They come for all kinds of reasons, no doubt, but they certainly expect the reassurance of singing the old familiar carols.

As the (very amateur) organist of our local parish church, I know I shall be playing the old favourites four or five times in the next few days: for a carol service, a Christmas Eve service, a Christmas Day service, and possibly also a gathering at the local sheltered housing estate. Indeed, the marathon began today, at a nativity service. It is possible to ring the changes a bit, but woe betide us if we omit the absolutely essential favourites. By the time it is all over, like the clergyman at the beginning of this Letter, I do begin to show signs of carol fatigue.

Important part

That said, for thousands of people Christmas carols are an important part of their lives. You have only to consider the millions, all over the world, who each year listen on radio, or watch on television, the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College chapel in Cambridge. That is, of course, the up-market end of carol singing. All over the country, it is reflected in thousands of far more basic, less sophisticated, occasions.

Last week, I took some of my grandchildren to the annual children's party which Wolfson College gives for the children and grandchildren of all those associated with the college. It is a long established college tradition, but this year, as is the case every year, many children attend for the first time. For them, the tradition is a new experience. At one stage in the party, the children are invited to sing carols.

As Wolfson is a strongly international college, there are children present from a wide variety of different faiths. It is fascinating to hear the enthusiasm with which they sing. It is not exactly King's College chapel, but for the children it is an essential element of the “festive season”.

So, of course, are the Christmas presents — however much my Scrooge-like approach leads me to mock their “must have” nature. The poet John Betjeman put it well, in his poem Christmas, drawing a distinction between the presents — “bath salts and inexpensive scent, And hideous tie so kindly meant” — and the occasion which they are supposed to celebrate.

So, enjoy the carols, feel festive in the festive season, and (slightly belated) merry Christmas to everyone!

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email:


Cambridge Letter: In perpetual motionDecember 14, 2009