The Reverend Richard Coles on Christmas carols

11 December 2018

The Reverend Richard Coles – a familiar voice on the radio – feels that too many carols can dampen a vicar’s appetite for the festive season. However, he admits he’s never lost his inner child…



Tell it not at the Christingle, or the wassail evening, or at Midnight Mass, but secretly a part of me rather wishes Christmas were quinquennial (church jargon for once every five years).

It is not that I do not like Christmas – I love it – but there is something about too frequent repetition that can dull even the strongest appetite. I was once a curate at a smart central London church where we hosted sometimes 30 carol services for charities in the run up to Christmas, and I have to say that when the herald angels have sung for 27 consecutive days the temptation to snap ‘I KNOW!’ is almost irresistible.

There was also the delicate matter of celebrity wrangling. The big charities were able to turn out teams of well-known people to do readings in the gaps between the carols, and sometimes they were very random indeed (we got Rod Stewart and the prime minister of Sudan at one, I recall); and there were sometimes politically sensitive collisions to avoid, which involved me taking one reader through the vicarage garden to church, while another came in through the font door.

One of my most enduring memories is of a famous personage, not perhaps untouched by a hint of pomposity, who complained that he did not like the modern version of the prologue to the fourth Gospel, which I presented to him, and insisted on being given the traditional version instead. Actually the traditional version was what I had given him, so I took it into the vestry, put a shopping list through the photocopier, then returned with the same reading, which he proclaimed satisfactory.

We’d crawl out behind the organ and make our way to the vicarage where we would drink whisky until the verger rang a special bell

Carol services bring another risk. Shaking hands with 10,000 people in December means you are very likely to end up with a vicious Christmas cold, croak your way through Midnight Mass, and feel like death warmed up at the 8 o’clock on Christmas morning. My boss used to keep a supply of anti-bacterial spray under his cloak and we would surreptitiously sanitise our hands in between handshakes.

Another boss of mine at a different church took advantage of the layout of the choir stalls to lighten the burden in the carol season. We would appear at the beginning to welcome people with the bidding prayer and then we would sit back in our stalls apparently for the duration, but actually crawl out behind the organ and make our way to the vicarage where we would drink whisky until the verger rang a special bell he had rigged up to alert us that Hark the Herald was starting. We would then sneak back into church and reappear to give the blessing at the end.

But of course Christmas is not there for clergy to enjoy themselves; our job is to make it available to others, and sometimes that can only be done by sacrificing an element of your own enjoyment, as any decent host of any decent party knows. And if we get that right then even we, jaded creatures, can still suddenly recall being children and, for the first time, sensing something unimaginably wonderful about to happen.

The mythology of Christmas may have long lost its charm, the relentless commercialism may have worn you down, perhaps you never really got to like sprouts. But within us something of the child endures, with limitless hope, and trust; and I pray, even if it has been years since it flickered, that the light of Christmas may shine for you again, in generosity, kindness, goodwill to all people, and give the angels something to sing about again and again and again.

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