Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey – BBC 4

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I was expecting this to be just a bit of festive fun, but it was actually surprisingly moving. Lucy Worsley really can do moving, when she’s not dressing up and being irritating. We love to sing. Even when you’re me, and you were told to mouth the words at the school Christmas concert because your voice was so bad that you were putting the other girls off. We feel a need to sing together, whether we’re cheering our team on at football matches or singing Don’t Look Back In Anger when we’re trying to come to terms with a devastating terrorist attack.

Christmas carols go back to the days of wassailing, long before the winter festivities were taken over by the Church. The Puritans wanted rid of them, and any religious-themed music not actually using words from the Bible was frowned on for decades after that, well into the mid-18th century. But people wanted to sing, and, as Lucy said, carols were “the people’s music” – and the religious authorities had to give in. During the famous Christmas truce of 1914, carols were sung, and “Just for a little while, they brought comfort and comradeship, and a little bit of peace”. I think we could all do with some of that. Let the midwinter festivities, regardless of whatever form of religion, if any, they’re associated with for you, be about coming together. Singing’s a really good way of doing that. Even when you’re me, and you were banned from singing out loud during the school concert!

The programme started off with wassailing, and a reminder that midwinter celebrations go back long before they became associated with the Nativity story. We then got some Tudor jollification, complete with a picture of a Tudor Father Christmas. I’ve always rather fancied the Tudor court idea of stuffing yourself for twelve days, but I’m fat enough already – not that that seemed to bother Henry VIII, in his later years. Then the Reformation, and the infamous Commonwealth period – which I prefer to call the Interregnum, but no-one else seems to use that term these days! – when the Puritans were calling the shots and, as we all know, a lot of the Christmas traditions were banned. Out went any form of singing in church other than psalms set to melodies.  Even long after that, the Church of England wasn’t keen on carols –  and the Methodists deserve a big festive gold star for promoting them.  Eventually, the Established Church gave in – the first non-Biblical one it OKd being Hark the Herald Angels sing.

It was quite hard to get it all to fit in with the history of carols, because we don’t actually know how or where most of them came from, and that’s complicated by the fact that, in most cases, the words and the music originated separately! And we honestly don’t know if there are hidden meanings behind, say, The Twelve Days of Christmas. But we did hear quite a bit about the history of some individual carols. Is O Come All Ye Faithful actually a Jacobite song, referring to Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than having anything to do with Christmas? Yes, probably! How far does In The Bleak Midwinter reflect Christina Rosetti’s struggles with mental and physical health problems? I didn’t know that O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by an American minister who’d gone on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to get away from the Civil War – why did I not know that?!

And, whilst the story of the Silent Night music and the flooded church organ is well-known, something that’s never really mentioned is the fact that the actual words date from slightly earlier, 1816, the year after the end of the Napoleonic Wars which brought such upheaval to the Salzburg area, passed around like a parcel from ruler to ruler. It was the first year of “heavenly peace” for a long time. And that’s the carol most closely associated with the Christmas truce of 1914. Lucy seemed quite emotional whilst she was talking about it. I really hadn’t expected this programme to be quite so moving. It was lovely.

This isn’t a carol (nor was it in the programme, but I’m sticking it in anyway) but it is a Christmas song – Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas, sung by the late, great, Freddie Mercury.

Oh my love
We live in troubled days
Oh my friend
We have the strangest ways
All my friends
On this one day of days
Thank God it’s Christmas
Yes it’s Christmas
Thank God it’s Christmas
For
One
Day

Could we have some peace and goodwill to all men (and women), please?  Some tidings of comfort and joy?  And some heavenly peace?   Waes Hael (good health)!!   Well done, Lucy.  I really enjoyed this.

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