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Sweet bells, sweet chiming Christmas bells – Sheffield Christmas Traditions (Part 1)

December 22, 2010

Have you got that Christmas feeling yet? I hadn’t really, after three weeks laid up in bed with various bugs and ailments, and too much time concentrating on my new job. However, this Sunday I finally got that Christmas cheer after an evening spent singing Christmas carols with friends and acquaintances at the Hillsborough Hotel.

And not just any Christmas Carols mind. You may or may not be aware that the Sheffield area (and in my mind I extend that to North Derbyshire and the Peak District, though the two are distinctly different) has a rich history of Christmastime traditions, with a huge canon of carols hailing from the local area, and many distinct local versions of popular carols. It’s worth checking these out of course, and as the living tradition is alive and well, the best place may very well be at your local pub.

You may have noticed the Sheffield Carols link has been on our ‘upcoming events’ bit for a while now, and though unfortunately due to the above mentioned illness I have not made it to any of the singing sessions at Dungworth that I had planned to go to. There are in fact carols sessions from late November through to the New Year at a number of pubs in the area, mostly north Sheffield  and North Derbyshire, and they are an experience like no other. Local people and tourists alike crammed up to the walls, bellowing out songs you’ve heard, songs you haven’t, with a confidence and experience of those who’ve been keeping a tradition alive and well for 150 years. Having said that, this isn’t some dusty old museum piece to look at – if you come along, you’re expected to join in or make way for those clamouring at the front door! Sheffield carols, like many of our folk traditions, are not a spectator sport.

Here’s a video (lifted from Youtube – thanks to David Burbidge) of one of the more popular songs, the Sheffield version of the Holly and the Ivy, which I’m sure you’ll agree has a lot more guts to it than the classic choral versions.

The carols are a pretty varied bunch though – from the gutsy and raucous to the haunting and beautiful, such as the now famous Castleton Carol – aka The Bells of Paradise, or Down In Yon Forest. Here are two recent versions by local folk artists Kerfuffle (hailing from Derbyshire) and Bella Hardy (Edale),

Bella Hardy: Down In Yon Forest on Spotify

Jon Boden (of Spiers and Boden and Bellowhead) who lives locally, has also recorded several of our local Christmas songs for his ‘Folk Song a Day’ project, which you can hear here, including the namesake of this post, ‘While Shepherds Watched (Sweet Chiming Bells)’ – the best version of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night I know (yes, even better than the one about them being seated round the tub) – I am informed there are around twenty local versions (not all of them are ‘canon’ though).

You can learn more about the history and culture of our local carols at Yorkshire Folk Arts here, and the Village Carols site has more information on carol traditions across the country. Local Carols has the up to date schedule for carol sessions in the area, should you want to go along, and also has another nice introduction to the tradition.

A lot of people talk about the ‘oral tradition’ – the practice of learning songs, or stories, or tunes, by ear (hearing them) and picking them up, learning them, and then passing them on through the generations. If you want to see this happening, get yourself to a carols session, because every year people come and learn the songs for the first time. The songs sung is a vast library, but there are favourites and some that are particular to different areas or pubs.

For an atheist such as myself, Christmas isn’t really about church or remembering Jesus, it’s about being with my friends and family, playing music, drinking a lot, and having a good time. I know that’s not the same for everyone, but that’s my take. Most of the songs are, of course, about Jesus, but I think there’s no harm in that and I take them as a tradition, and I’m not going to pretend that historically people weren’t more religious than they are now (that’s just progress, my dear readers).

Having said that, on Sunday night, a wonderfully poignant song was reeled out which goes to the tune of ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’, and I’ve reproduced the lyrics for your amusement here:

Unitarian Universalist Christmas carol

Gods rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there’s no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
Our current Christmas Customs come from Persia and from Greece,
From solstice celebrations of the ancient Middle East.
This whole darn Christmas spiel is just another pagan feast,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
There was no star of Bethlehem, there was no angels’ song;
There could not have been wise men for the trip would take too long.
The stories in the Bible are historically wrong,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact!

So to leave you with, here’s a video of one of the less serious local carols, and some photos of us all enjoying ourselves. Merry Christmas!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter Hewis permalink
    October 22, 2012 12:02 pm

    We live near Oxford but would love to have a copy of the text and tune for Sweet chiming bells beginning not with While shepherds watched but with O blessed night. Can anyone help me? We would like to sing in the Unitarian carol service at Harris Manchester College in Oxford.


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