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The unique carol singing traditions of the UK

Whether it's in the pub, a church or out on the street, people in the UK are keeping local - and often unique - carol-singing traditions alive. But what are they?

Across the country, pockets of people are keeping alive Christmas carol traditions that were lost to most of us hundreds of years ago.


We're not talking the usual carols you hear playing on a loop as you shop in the supermarket. In churches, village pubs and on the streets, local voices are singing carols that have been handed down the generations and are unique to their areas.

Often the traditions tie in with the old ways of life and trades of the area, like fishing and farming. Each community fiercely claims the carols as their own.

"People still want to sing, we haven't lost the demand for music making in a community, for the community," says Jon Boden, a musician and caroller from Yorkshire. "It is community that keeps all of these traditions at Christmas alive."

So what makes these carols and singing them so special?


In Dungworth, south Yorkshire, Christmas officially starts on the first Sunday after Armistice Day, when the Royal Hotel opens its doors for traditional pub carols.

For 200 years locals have squeezed into the pub to sing. But these aren't traditional carols, sung by sweet, angelic voices. This is carolling Yorkshire style - traditional, local songs that are belted out. It's about raising the pub roof and making the walls vibrate.

"There's a particularly amazing sound about a group of people singing without inhibition," says Jon Boden, who lives near Dungworth and takes part in the pub carols each year.

The pub carols are rooted in the community. Some are sung only in south Yorkshire, some only within a few miles of Dungworth, some only at the Royal.

The tradition stems from the early 19th Century, when the Church of England took a hard line on singing. Disgruntled locals simply took the carols and themselves to the pub. For them it was - and still is - about community and tradition, not religious piety.

Keeping Tradition Alive At Christmas is on for four days starting on Radio Two at 2200 GMT starting on Monday, December 21
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"The people who sang freely were driven out and ended up in this area in the pubs. No one knows why they went in pubs, but they did," says Dave Eyre, who has been singing at the sessions for more than 30 years. "These carols are sort of fossilised in a piece of amber, existing almost as they did the in 1830s and 40s and that's what makes them so fascinating."

The Royal is one of several pubs in the area that guard this cherished tradition. Sessions are held every week until Boxing Day and nothing is formally organised - people just turn up each year and pack out the pubs.

Carols start at noon and officially finish at 2pm, although unofficially they can go on much longer. Families have been taking part for generations and those who have left the area often come back to sing, sometimes from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

"It might sound a little trite, but it tells us who we are," says Ian Russell, a folk music anthropologist who began as an outsider researching the carols in the 1960s.


They're old, sound beautiful and are unique to Wales. The Plygain carol-singing tradition is a treasured part of Christmas for the Welsh, with words and music that are centuries old.

The word Plygain comes from Latin and is translated as "cock crow". This is because originally the services were held early each Christmas morning and singers would have to rise between 3am and 6am to attend them.

They date to the 1600s. Back then, only men took part and would walk through the village carrying candles to light the church. Once there, they would offer up their gift of song to the Christmas morning.

In Llanfyllin, where the Plygain tradition is still strong, it is not unusual for families to have their own carols that are part of their heritage and closely guarded.

Plygains are held in churches from December to January 6th. They open with a carol sung by the congregation, followed by an abbreviated evening service, with readings and prayers.

"There is no master of ceremonies, no invitations, but the church is in silence then the singers decide for themselves when they wish to deliver the carol," says Rhiannon Ifans, history professor at the University of Wales and a Plygain singer. "It's all very, very informal."

It closes with another carol sung by the congregation.


In Padstow it's done in the streets. In the run-up to Christmas, the Cornish town is alive with the sound of carol singing and it has been the same for hundreds of years.

"People are singing an unbroken tradition of carols that goes back certainly well over 150, and probably 200 years," says caroller and music historian Mike O'Conner.

A lot of what goes on isn't written, but handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter. And unlike the informal carols every Sunday in Dungworth, the Padstow carols need a little more forward planning.

They have a leader who's job it is to arrange the route, get the carollers in the right place at the right time and choose what they will sing. They start the singing by announcing the name of the carol and then saying "strike sound".

Local Barry Kinsman started carolling 60 years ago with a group of friends from primary school.

"I feel I'm doing what Padstownians have done for 200 years, maybe some of the carols are even older," he says. "The carols are treasured... they are part of the living tradition of Padstow."

The carollers take a route through the town. Sometimes they sing to small crowds or just to themselves. Often they have sung to generations of the same family. They are rewarded with food and drink along the way.

The carols they sing are steeped in tradition. Harky Harky is a carol based on the words of the universal carol Hark The Herald Angels Sing.

"The version that we sing here came, I think, from Port Leven or Newlyn, one of the west Cornwall ports," says Mr Kinsman.

"In the winter a lot of the trawlers fished out of Padstow and the men would sing their carols on the quay and we would sing ours. I suppose we adopted Harky Harky, about that time, about 100 years ago."


What makes Leigh on Sea's carolling service so unusual is the fact it is so new compared with the other areas. When they didn't have their own tradition, the community created one. The town now sings a "patchwork-quilt of carols" and has done for the last 32 years.

"What you do if you want a local carol service and you haven't got your own... you make your own tradition," says professor and lay minister Ken MacKinnon, who has been involved from the start.

Along with local musician Paul McDowell, he has researched manuscripts, tunes and many other old items over a long period. This includes carols that probably haven't been sung for hundreds of years. This year Prof MacKinnon has revived one from 11th Century Ireland.

Others have been adapted for the service, even specially written for it. There's been at least two "world premieres" at the event in recent years.

The service is held in church and carollers are accompanied by a band. This stems from what is called the West Gallery tradition, where local musicians or a band would play in church with the congregation. The tradition was largely lost when church hardliners brought in organs.

There are quite a few songs that the service has borrowed from Padstow, like the Padstow Farewell Shanty. The locals feel an affinity with the Cornish town, as they do with all small fishing ports. It stems from a shared way of life and a community that once revolved around the offerings of the sea.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Beautiful, there's nothing like people singing together, it's so primitive and strikes deep emotionally. It's also so good to hear traditions thriving in a time when everything familiar seems to be disappearing around us.
Irene Caswell, Petersfield, Hampshire

I enjoyed listening to the variation according to the different parts of the country. I thought the version from Llanfyllin, Wales, sounded the best and the Cornish from Padstow sounded more like our modern carols. I would like to hear more of the old traditional carols as they are unique to individual communities and should be kept alive. We are losing so much of our tradition and individuality as everything seems so stereotyped nowadays.
Jennifer Cox

An article on Christmas carols, begging the question, "what makes singing carols so special?" - and no mention of Jesus Christ in what follows. The infrequent references to church are generally negative. This isn't the sort of Christmas tradition that generations of Christians will recognise. Please don't downgrade it to merely a tradition of singing in wintertime. It is the birth of the Saviour of the world.
Mike Smith, High Wycombe

There seems to be a bit missing from the "UK" map...
jtattie, Aberdeen

This Wednesday and Christmas Eve, my husband and I will be joining the Odcombe Carollers around the streets of Upper and Lower Odcombe. This is a tradition now at its 150th anniversary - the 12 carols and their tunes are special to Odcombe. We wish you a merry Christmas and a bright and prosperous New Year.
Jane Wickenden, Wincanton, Somerset

I used to live in a small village called Odcombe just outside Yeovil. Every year on Christmas Eve, people would start from the small Methodist church and work their way round to every house in the village singing carols that had been handed down for generations. It used to take them some time as there is a Higher and Lower Odcombe and I believe that about half way through, the carol singers would stop at the pub for refreshments.
Angela Swain, Yeovil, Somerset

It's great to hear that traditional carol singing is alive and well. I recall with fond memory the days of carolling with my friends - not to collect extra pocket money as is so often the case in modern Britain, but to accompany the distribution of gifts and food parcels to some of the elderly folk in the community. Last Saturday I was fortunate to attend another event of relatively new tradition, and enjoyed a gathering of several hundred expats (from a variety of countries) singing carols in the Kuwaiti desert. Now in its seventh year, we were treated to a Nativity tableau by some of the children, an array of barbecued goodies (a great way to heat the mince pies), with carols around the bonfire and a firework display before heading home. Oh yes .... and the message that we were given by the nativity children? "Don't forget the baby!"
Paul, Mahboula, Kuwait

I went carol singing for the first time this year, and it was amazing fun. We had a choir ranging in age from 13 to 60-something, and we got a great response. A lot of people were pleased that we weren't collecting money or associated with a church... yup, it was all for the sake of feeling Christmassy.
Mogambo, Derby

Fantastic. Music should be a participatory activity. Not everything needs to be over amplified and TV-slick. Blessings on these choirs and their choristers.
Tamara, Maidenhead, England

I grew up in Rowley Regis in the Black Country, and we had our own carols in the Strict Baptist chapels. I particularly remember a version of While Shepherds Watched, which had a chorus of "Sweet chiming Christmas Bells/ sweet bells!/ They cheer us on our heavenwards way/Sweet chiming Christmas Bells". I've never come across this version anywhere else - and I used to go to the South Yorkshire carol events regularly.
Chris Pampling, Coventry, UK

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