To the Church of the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, as is my wont, to celebrate the habits of my tribe, as parishioners have done since 1211. They must have done so before that, but not in this building. The service of Nine Carols was just after dark, with the rain lashing down in the bleak and sodden mid-winter, mud upon mud, wet as a wet, wet stone.
Arriving wet, and late, I got my best ever pew, up at the front facing the lectern for the readings. In deference, parishioners on this holy night had filled the church from the back. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
The nave was full to overflowing, the transept also full, the chancel empty of choir, the congregation in good voice, the carols familiar, dependable. In particular: Once in Royal David’s City (not verses 4 and 6), Oh little town of Bethlehem, The Holly and the Ivy, God rest you Merry Gentlemen, Hark! The herald angels sing. Just the organist, our voices, a few candles, and no fuss. We swelled with praise. For variety, the vicar allocated verses to male and female voices, though he did not specify if that held true of the choruses, which made us falter somewhat, and noting the hesitant volume, he later clarified that both sexes should sing those. In the spirit of priestly festive fun, he invited us to sing the descant on the last verse of every carol, if we knew it. Few did. The coral tradition is lapsing, and the effective canon shrinks.
Carols are not upon oath when it comes to theology. It is a question whether they get the hang of things better than the ancient writings, or whether they are excursions in search of a rhyme, making personal points dear to authors. Those carols that catch on engrave their own truths, so perhaps the point is moot. Some songs get sung, some tales get read. The readings were done by adults, who spoke well, with meaning. Each reader was known to us, and so were their texts. The readers had aged slightly, the texts not so much. Readers stood for our inspection at the lectern, like plaintiffs at a photo booth which opens once a year. The process ages them, and we, eternal and unchanged in our pews, merely watch. Isaiah and Luke predominated, then Micah and finally the mysterious John. The message was passed on, though without the thunder of other times.
There is a moment in all ritual when repetition makes participants pivot between confirmation and criticism. There is no news but the old news, so why repeat it? This is ancient stuff about tax collection, the lines are well worn: so are you. Here is a familiar story, and you know where it leads, and a year has gone by, and the crops are gathered, and stored, and your year has gone by, and cannot be stored, but perhaps remembered. William James referred to the flywheel of habit, and sometimes beliefs spin from former fervour, not from present faith, though there was that too.
All this talk of birth: there was at least one baby, mildly talkative, giving a babbling commentary; and perhaps another asleep. Despite the injunction to do so, I did not dwell on those on the further shore, but thought of those on this one. For someone to be missed they must be noted beforehand: pay attention to the living, the imperative of the present.
Perhaps impelled by the promise of mulled wine, there was a certain briskness to the celebration. There were no imported sopranos to marvel at, nor even a small orchestra to swell the scene. We were making our own entertainment tonight. Perhaps it was 45 minutes, possibly 50. We did not tarry over our observances.
After the blessing a pause and then the organ finale, and it was all over. In a glaring change, the lights were switched on, and the ancient peace was lost. Mulled wine, mince pies, conversation. An elderly lady graciously excused herself from attending a Christmas party, on account of her elderly husband being unsteady on dark and wintry nights. A much younger woman spoke of Italy, and of a friend who had just left the village. He was holidaying in Thailand, bored, and hoped Singapore would be more interesting. A farmer complained of the persistent rain, a month’s worth in the last few days. Slugs were eating the winter seeds he had planted, particularly those close to the woods. He had put down as many poison pellets as the law allowed, and was hoping the crows would devour the remaining slugs.
Leaving, I commended the vicar on assuming his parishioners were either male or female, and nothing else. He replied that he chose the words deliberately, so that sons could sing with their fathers even though their voice might not have changed. In a former life he was a biologist. Outside the wind was blowing, and I remembered there were cars parked on the road, and things to do. A parishioner already standing outside staring at the dark rain-speckled carp pond wished me Merry Christmas. Perhaps he was thinking of 808 years of services.
Walking back through the rain, illuminated by a headlamp on the glistening tarmac, I swear I heard an owl hoot.
And to you too, may he hoot Merry Christmas.