"When the band finished playing, they howled out for more..."
(The Pogues, Fairytale of New York)
There's a very funny Spitting Image sketch where the candlelit choirboys of Kings College Cambridge stand poised to sing, organ playing softly in the background, choirmaster's arms randomly concertinering in and out as if squeezing bellows, the voiceover introduces them...and they launch into Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody. It's a little moment of genius, although the most striking thing for those in the know is the accurate portrayal of Stephen Cleobury's conducting.
The service has been broadcast on the radio since 1929 and on television since 1954, which means there is a 60th anniversary to celebrate this year. The radio broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is live, the television one is not. It is recorded earlier in December, possibly because the Michaelmas term at the University of Cambridge often finishes so early that the students taking part in the service need something to do to fill the time before Christmas Eve. They will only get themselves into trouble if they hang around unsupervised in the college quads for too long.
An atheist can enjoy carols in a pub more. We spent a glorious evening a couple of weeks ago in the company of Kate Rusby, a true Yorkshire lass from Barnsley. She grew up in the culture of the Sings of South Yorkshire, where every weekend from November onwards, people gather in the pubs to sing carols that the Victorians threw out of the churches for being too merry. And Kate Rusby has recorded some of the carols onto CD in her own beautiful folk style, and now takes them on tour each December. Beer is encouraged. The music is delightful. She has crocheted snowflakes hanging above the stage. A brass quintet add the finishing touches. She explains it all for herself here. (And yes, that it is the tune to "On Ilkley Moor Baht' at" in the opening number, one of at least three versions of While Shepherds Watched that Kate sings. However, it turns out that this famous Yorkshire tune was, disappointingly, composed in a place called Cranbook in Kent.)
Anyway, I did buy my daughter a 10p copy of the nativity story in the charity shop. It's an ancient Ladybird book that can be converted into a magic roundabout. I read it to her alongside Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas. They are both, after all, stories of cultural significance at this time of year. Here is Charlotte studying the nativity in the Italian cafe down the road while I tuck into panettone and mulled wine. Buon Natale.