Carol singing is an intrinsic part of Christmas, from the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge to the unspeakable Christmas musak in your local shopping mall, from carol services, and tours of carol singers in every parish in Christendom to ‘We wish you a merry Christmas!’ on the doorstep from urchins wanting to earn a few extra pennies for themselves. Less well known, but to connoisseurs much more interesting, are local carols peculiar to a specific area. Cornwall and Somerset have their own traditions and in North Wales they sing them in Welsh in a unique tradition called ‘Plygain’.
But the most thriving of these carol outbreaks in Britain is around Sheffield and North Derbyshire. Between Remembrance Sunday and New Year carols are sung at about 40 locations, most of them pubs but otherwise village halls and institutes, or on village tours. Even Tesco is mentioned in one place though we think it must be outside and not among the manic Christmas shoppers. Each place has its own schedule, usually weekly, though not necessarily for the whole eight weeks. Furthermore they all have their own carols and their own way of singing them. For example over 30 versions of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’ have been noted, from completely different tunes to subtle variations of the words. Many places have carols that are sung nowhere else. Most pubs have a soloist celebrated for his or her rendering of a particular carol and woe betide any outsider who tries to hijack their signature carol. The accompaniment varies also, mostly piano or organ, but maybe a string quartet, an ad hoc group or even a brass band as at Stannington. However it should be pointed out that these gatherings are not so much to the glory of God as the joy of having a good sing.
The Royal Hotel in Dungworth and the Blue Ball in Worrall, both a few miles NW of Sheffield, are two of the most famous pubs. Both have their sessions at Sunday lunchtime, both have long queues outside hours beforehand, both are completely solid when the carols begin. The beer doesn’t flow inordinately because nobody can get near the bar – but if you do manage it and you need to go to the gents as a consequence you may find a row of burly locals singing at the tops of their voices as they relieve themselves. That’s a real folk custom!