From crackers to carol singing, this festive tome from the master of trivia, Mark Forsyth, explores the customs of our most popular calendar event—Christmas. 

Mark Forsyth begins his terrific new book by reminding us just how weird Christmas is: a time when we sit around a dead tree wearing paper crowns and telling our children the good news that a fat bloke with a beard broke into their bedrooms last night. But what’s stranger, Forsyth suggests, is that we no longer think of any of it as strange. So how did Christmas get this way?

For those who want to sound clever, he says, the two usual answers are that Christmas is all pagan, or that it was invented by the Victorians—neither of which is true. Christmas is not a Christian version of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, and it was already being described as “the mother of all festivals” in 386AD—the same year, incidentally, that Gregory of Nazianzus started another great Yuletide tradition by complaining that “feasting to excess” was blinding people to the true meaning of Christmas. 

Forsyth made his name with fact-filled but witty books about unusual words. Now he applies the same combination of careful research and a breezy writing style to all aspects of what made Christmas so crazy, from the invention of crackers to how a fourth-century Turkish bishop ended up travelling the sky in a reindeer-driven sleigh. And, here, to carols… 

 

The excerpt

"The carol service was invented in Truro in 1880 by a chap called Edward White Benson. The story goes that on Christmas Eve everybody in Truro would get disgustingly drunk, and that the Bishop of Truro (Benson) was so disgusted he decided to lure everybody out of the pub with his new service. The problem with this story is that there’s no evidence that that’s what motivated Benson. And we do know a lot about him. He later became Archbishop of Canterbury and his whole family had something of a mania for writing. His wife had 39 lesbian lovers. How do we know that? Because she kept a diary, and numbered them. One of his sons was the eminent gay novelist E F Benson. Another was the eminent gay poet Arthur Benson, who wrote the words to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. 

Anyway, in 1880 this family was in the brand-new diocese of Truro—and Benson decided to invent the carol service, perhaps not to get the people out of the pubs, but to get the carols out. 

You see, before this, Christmas carols hadn’t been sung in the church, they’d been sung in the pub. Carols were folk songs. This is why so many of them are really rather odd. Why would you see three ships come sailing by? The answer is that nobody knows. It doesn’t make any sense anyway as a Christmas hymn because Bethlehem is landlocked.

Then in the 18th and 19th centuries folklorists started to collect these folk songs, and people started to write new ones. But even these new ones changed all the time. For example, the co-founder of Methodism Charles Wesley wrote a carol that began: ‘Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the King of Kings’. And that’s how it went for 20 years, until another preacher, George Whitefield, published a version that went: ‘Hark, the herald angels sing/Glory to the new-born King!’ 

Wesley was not amused. He wrote: ‘Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honour to reprint many of our hymns. They are perfectly welcome to do so provided they print them just as they are.’ He goes on to say that he doesn’t want to be held ‘accountable for the doggerel of other men’. But he is. Look in any hymn book and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ will be clearly listed: words by Wesley, tune by Mendelssohn. 

 

 

"Before this, Christmas carols hadn’t been sung in the church, they’d been sung in the pub"

 

 

Mendelssohn would be even more vexed by the whole thing. He died without even hearing of the hymn. All he did was to write a song about Gutenberg. It was precisely 400 years since the invention of the printing press and Mendelssohn knocked out a song about it. However, he realised that once the anniversary had passed, it would probably need some new words as songs about type aren’t that popular.

He wrote in a letter that he didn’t mind what new words were written so long as they weren’t religious. Then he died, and a few years later somebody noticed the tune would work very well with ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and that was that. And ever since, people have been carolling away unaware that they are going against the explicit, written wishes of both the lyricist and the composer.

 

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