18th December 2020

Most of us I expect have a favourite Christmas carol, though it’s not always easy to say just why we are so fond of it. We probably also have one or two unfavourite carols. In their case, it’s usually easier to say what we don’t like about them. Sorry if I cause offence, but the carol I like least is “The first Nowell”. I find the tune rather boring, and the words are a muddle.

My favourite is “O little town of Bethlehem”. But I can’t quite put my finger on just why, probably because, as in anything (or anyone) we love there are a number of reasons. The tune probably most often used for it, “Forest Green”, is a lovely traditional English melody harmonized by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It has a gentle simplicity but matches the range of emotions in the words: the poignancy of the gathering “hopes and fears of all the years”; wonder at the mystery of the everlasting light shining “in the dark streets” of Bethlehem; of the eternal God coming so quietly to dwell among humble people in our ordinary world; and then the bursting joy as we hear “the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell”. But also, precious recollections gather around it. Like the memory of carol-singers from our church singing it at our front door just as I was going to bed on Christmas Eve, full of eight-year old excitement. Finally, it brings together all our prayers, longings and joys, of young and old, of the past, present and to come: “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel”.

Keith Clements