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Steve Lamb - Christmas 1972

(December 01, 2017)

Christmas 1972

Unlike today when some supermarkets have shelves of festive items displayed even in September, there was no premature celebration of Christmas back in the early seventies. It slowly crept up on you and caught you as you realised that December days were already passing. One of the clues to the forthcoming celebration in our grammar school was preparation for the school’s annual concert in the village church. In the last week of term lessons went on as usual but during lunch hours and after school choirs, parties and soloists practised rigorously in the assembly hall. Rehearsals for the play due to be performed at the end of January were suspended as too many actors were double booked.

My only contribution was to select one or two readers from the younger pupils and help them to polish their renditions of the traditional extracts from the New Testament. Other readings would be the responsibility of senior pupils and members of staff who practised independently or not at all. Up to this point there appeared to be no clear difference between what was happening in the school where I taught and what had happened in the school where I had been taught. The day of the concert showed that to be entirely wrong.

My Birmingham carol concert was always held in the main hall of the school and it was very much a concert with readings. The programme was pretty much the same from year to year. The audience was respectful and the concert was well attended. Music making in my boys’ grammar school can be best described as robust. If you were lucky you would find jewels of excellence tucked away in the general focus on accuracy and volume. Readings were always very well presented. It was a job done properly and without sentiment but it was a task to be completed because it was December and we would soon be breaking up for Christmas. Tradition dictated that it should be done as it was done.

The evening of my first south Wales carol service was cold and clear – the best kind of December evening. I was in lodgings about three quarters of a mile from the church where the service would be held and the first surprise of the evening came when my landlord told me he wanted to attend and would walk with me if I agreed. He loved a carol service. Well wrapped up we marched briskly in the direction of the post office, the retired miner and the young teacher chatting happily. We passed the doctors’ surgery and took the footpath up to High Street. As we walked we found we were joining a procession: pupils taking part in the service, parents and grandparents, students home from college for the Christmas break and interested members of the community like my landlord. They were making their way cheerfully through village streets and merging before the imposing church. This felt a little like a gathering of supporters on match day in miniature. What it was, I realised later thinking about the events of the night, was an example of how the community of the village showed itself time and time again. This was clear to someone who had grown up in a sprawling city where post war clearance and development had destroyed the culture and communities my grandparents spoke of with nostalgic affection.

We climbed the steep steps and crowded into the church. Every space was taken with rows of chairs that had been ferried from the school to add to the number of seats provided by fixed pews. The junior and senior choirs were already in place. The white shirts and blouses gleamed in the brightness of the church. We found seats and settled down amid the soft bustle of final preparations being made around us by church officials and the school’s music teacher. It was clear this was an important occasion. People were dressed in their best clothes and were stretching to see friends and relations.

The vicar opened the service by welcoming the school to the church, reminding the congregation that this was a service to mark the birth of Christ and concluded by wishing us all a happy Christmas. And then the singing began. The voices filled the church and the sound soared above us. The obvious difference to my previous experience of such a night was the contribution of the girls’ voices. Even when there were congregational carols the school choirs provided elements I could not identify or describe but which lifted my heart. Seamlessly the readings, individual items and carols wove a spell that enchanted me.

A few items stand out in my memory even now. I remember the reading of the opening lines from John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….” The passage had always been one of those pieces of poetry that I did not fully grasp but which you could understand with your heart if not your head. This evening the passage was delivered by two members of staff: one reading a verse in English and then the other repeating it in Welsh. “Yn y dechreuad yr oedd y Gaer, yr oedd y Gaer gyda Duw, a Duw oedd y Gaer….” The spell-like quality of the lines was emphasised and the rhythms of the poetry sounded so profound to me even though I no longer had faith in any aspect of organised religion.

This was followed by an item from one of the girls’ parties. It was a Welsh lullaby called ‘Hwiangerdd Mair’ and we were asked to imagine Mary as a young mother taking refuge like a homeless migrant in a stable. This was the time of the expulsion of the Kenyan and Ugandan Asians and in Britain people were arguing about immigration linked to these events. Mary sings ‘cwsg, cwsg fanwylyd bach’ urging the Christ child to sleep – a song of such serenity that its beauty wrapped itself around the listeners in the church that night like comfort.

The next congregational carol was ‘Hark the Herald Angel’ – a carol I’d heard a hundred times if not more but I’d never heard it like this. The following day in school another teacher, more musical than I have ever been, told me that the soprano voices in the choirs had added a descant to the chorus. This addition transformed the carol. All I knew at the time was that our voices reached to the arched roof of the church as if the congregation was seeking a path to heaven. The sense that 2,000 years of Christmas were captured for this moment in our village church at our Carol Service lifted me through the rest of the evening. The collaboration of music, literature, community and the culture of Wales was a heady mixture that intoxicated me then and continues to do so. Smiling friends and neighbours, wrapped up warmly, strolled back through the village. Bright stars shone on a frosty night leading us home to open fires and warm mince pies.

Nadolig Llawen – Merry Christmas,

Steve Lamb, December 2017

Steve Lamb's new novel, Search, is serlialised in Cymru Culture.
Chapters 1 and two of Search are linked here.

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:

     On probation; September 2017
The school disco; June 2017

Exams, then and now; March 2017
The rugby tour; December 2016
The sponsored walk
; September 2016
A typical day
; June 2016

The school eisteddfod; March 2016
The school play; December 2015
Corridor duty; September 2015
End of an era; June 2015
Teacher training; March 2015
"... the best thing that happened to me in school"; December 2014
The punishment; September 2014
The interview; June 2014

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people. 

Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2017

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