Sunday, 20 December 2009


Waking up and seeing the garden transformed by snow sends me looking back - it always snowed at Christmas in days of yore when I was a teenager - Honest, it did! Midnight on Christmas Eve meant hot mince pies and warm fruity non-alcho drinks after an hour or two's walking the sparkling pavements, stopping off at the doorsteps of our Methodist aunts, uncles and cousins who lived around this Shiregreen district of Sheffield. At each house we'd give a hearty rendition of Once in David's, Silent Night, or Come All Ye to the accompaniment of well shaken collecting tins. The heartiness and the vigourousness of the shaking all helped to keep us warm, and besides the hint worked most times, and thus encouraged we'd proceed to the next port of call, before finally ending up at Ted Wragg's the choirmaster's house for well-earned refreshments. Then back home with our chillblanes to H W Bs and hang up stockings in icy bedrooms.

And of course there were Yorkshire carols too.

On the run-up to Christmas the custom for many was to gather in local pubs and inns within the City for a good old sing song. But even better was to journey further out. With my father and a few friends we'd set off in the car, on snow chains, making sure the shovels and sacks in the boot were at the ready to dig us out of drifts and provide a good grip on icy patches. We'd zigg-zagg our way cautiously up to Bolsterstone, a village high in the Pennines just outside Sheffield. The pub lights would be blazing, but before entering into the warm beery atmosphere we would stop to inspect the village stocks, a remnant of an even more distant past. The brass band would be tuning up and orders taken. None of your swanky church hymns here, the mood was merry and ready for a full-on vocal 'let's wake up the village' Hail Smiling Morn, Smiling Morn, Smiling Morn followed by While Shepherds Watched bellowed out to the much older folk tune of Ilkley Moor. Sad to say I've forgotten many of the other old Yorkshire carols now, some of them only known in and around these outer villages, but heartened to hear on the radio only this week that they are being rediscovered and broadcast. Anyone remember, There's A Song for a Time when the Sweet Bells Chime for the Rich and the Poor to pray. Oh that Joyful morn when Christ was born. Oh that Joyful Christmas Day?

Carols belonged to the people. They came from a very ancient tradition, possibly pre-Christian. Round dances (Carole) along with hearty celebratory singing, performed in the winter season and maybe around crackling out-door fires where roastings and feastings were carried on, then later gradually incorporating Christmas themes.

Possibly though, the most memorable ritual of the Season was the annual trip to Bellvue Zoo Manchester. But not like you imagine. First we'd congregate outside the Sheffield City Hall, piling the whole of the Philharmonic Choir plus instruments and assorted members of the fan club, (wives, children, parents,) into a fleet of coaches. Then away we'd go across the Pennines to Manchester. Meanwhile a similar convoy would be crossing over from Huddersfield, the two fleets converging on Bellvue. Finally, all assembled, we'd be met by Sir John Barberolli and his Halle orchestra and choir to give the performance of the year, Handel's Messiah, in the great concert hall to the delight of the giraffes and baboons, and an audience of musically discerning humans. Performance over, the best was yet to be; The Bean Feast. Long tables draped in crisp white cloth and decorated with silver bells and holly displayed the Christmas Tea.

I seem to remember it all getting a bit out of hand towards the end after everyone, big-name soloists, Isabelle Bailey, Cathline Ferrier, and simple citizen alike, had toasted and teased and congratulated each other a few times. Barberolli climbed onto the table and strode down the middle waving his baton, glass in other hand, while his feet squashed and squished the left-over mince pies and jellies. I think the chimps had already been fed by that time and put themselves to bed.

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