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    Sing, Choirs of Angels

    How a secular education in Christmas carols prepared the way for faith

    By Sr. Carino Hodder, OP

    December 21, 2022

    Available languages: Español


    This article was previously published in December 2020.

    O, little town of Bethlehem,” said my devoutly Sikh taxi driver. “How still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and . . .” (I chimed in from the back seat, providing the elusive word) – “dreamless – thank you – sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet, in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. That was my favorite one when I was a child.”

    “You have a good memory,” I said.

    “Oh yes, I still know the words to all the Christmas carols. My children think it’s hilarious. But we sang them every year at school, you see.”

    I certainly did see. It was Advent of 2019 and we were idling in traffic in the middle of Birmingham, traveling out of the city from the rail station. Seeing I was a religious sister, my driver had wanted to tell me all about his memories of the Christmas carols he had learned at primary school. Within a couple of minutes we were singing along together – after “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” we moved on to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night”while waiting for the lights to change. A disinterested observer may have found it a strange sight: a woman in a habit and a man in a turban, in a highly secular country, singing Christmas carols. But I was not at all surprised. After all, the childhood memories of my taxi driver – memories of being a non-Christian child immersed in the music of a faith that was not my own, and shaped by it in ways beyond my understanding – were my childhood memories too.

    I entered the British state school system in the mid-nineties, at the tail end of a particularly strange and distinctive era of British educational history. It was a time when British society was rapidly secularizing, when there was no guarantee that a majority of children in the average classroom would have a basic familiarity with Christianity or indeed any faith tradition at all.Yet the teachers at my primary school (up to the equivalent of third grade in the United States) would bring us together once a day to sing Christian hymns and songs in our school assembly. UK schools run by governmental authorities had, and still have, a statutory requirement to provide a daily act of collective worship – to use the legal jargon – for their pupils. It is perfectly possible to interpret this requirement in such a way that this collective worship need not expose children to anything substantially Christian at all. But that is not the course of action my teachers chose to take.

    It was a strange sight: a woman in a habit and a man in a turban, in a highly secular country, singing Christmas carols.

    Singing Christian songs in school assembly as a seven-year-old was my first and, at the time, only exposure to the world of faith. Like most of my classmates, I had absolutely no religious formation, Christian or otherwise, in my home life. My primary school itself was otherwise entirely secular, with no affiliation with the Church of England or any Christian denomination. But thanks to those daily assemblies, I knew that sometime in spring the green blade riseth from the buried grain; the whole year round some benevolent yet unnamed being had the whole world in his impossibly large hands; and come December – perhaps three or four weeks before the Christmas holidays – there would be peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.

    The result of all this is that I am a member of a generation which, on the whole, professes no belief in Christianity, claims no affinity with it, has no time for its obscure and embarrassing doctrines – and yet nevertheless has an implausible and implausibly deep knowledge of it imparted largely through the songs and carols we were made to sing as children. I am almost certain that if you were to say to any of my staunchly godless former classmates, “Very God,” they would respond effortlessly, “Begotten, not created. O come, let us adore him,” with little notion that, in dredging up their memories of Christmas carols past, they were quoting the Nicene Creed.

    This is not to say that collective worship in daily assembly was my only exposure to Christianity. Throughout the school year, but especially at Christmastime, my teachers threw various potentially sticky initiatives at the wall of our religious formation in an attempt to introduce us to the basics of the Christian creed. What’s notable about them is how little impact they made on me compared to the singing of carols.

    Take my patchy, surreal recollections of the annual Christingle service. Just before the Christmas holidays, our teachers would gather one hundred small children of varying attention spans and levels of hand-eye coordination in an Anglican church and give each one an orange with a lit candle thrust in the top and skewered with cocktail sticks covered in sweets. This apparently had something to do with Jesus, though as a seven-year-old the exact theological details were lost on me; being a clumsy child, Christingle in my mind was mainly associated with a mounting sense of anxiety and the smell of singed hair. These religious pyrotechnics were overseen by a kind and mild-mannered Anglican vicar by the name of Reverend Emblin. Reverend Emblin also regularly came into our school to tell us stories about Jesus, none of which were as exciting or memorable as the time he brought in a shepherd’s crook and used it to hook one of the little boys in the front row and pull him up by the neck. On days when the Reverend Emblin was not available we were instructed by a Baptist minister, Pastor David, who made very little impression on me; mostly I recall wondering why no one ever explained why his name sounded like pasta.

    Or consider the crowning achievement of our teachers’ well-meaning but ham-fisted attempts to introduce us to Christianity: the Nativity play. A week or so after the Christingle service, just before the Christmas holidays, Pastor David and the Reverend Emblin would watch their efforts at theological formation come to fruition as thirty or forty schoolchildren, dressed as a ragtag assortment of shepherds, angels, and wise men, presented to them the story of the birth of Jesus. Highlights included the year that the boy playing the innkeeper grew so excited that he threw up all over the inn. If nothing else, the smell hanging over our plywood-and-cardboard scenery certainly lent a grim, gritty realism to proceedings.


    Photograph by Timothy L. Hale

    But between the Christingle orange and the vomiting innkeeper, I can’t honestly say I developed much of an explicit understanding of Christianity or of the person of Jesus Christ. I can barely recall anything that Reverend Emblin or Pastor David told us. But what I do remember is that on the holy night, the stars were brightly shining, there were tidings of comfort and joy, O comfort and joy, and hallelujah, hallelujah, earth to heav’n replied.

    Then I entered my teens, and went to a new school. Collective worship with Reverend Emblin and Pastor David gave way to religious education classes in which, once a term, a representative from one religious tradition or another would come to give the class a presentation, and end up being mauled in a bear pit of belligerent teenagers. I once overheard the school’s head of religious education muse that she had considered ending the tradition of visits from outside speakers after one of her classes reduced a woman from a pro-life charity to tears. I honestly can’t remember a single word of anything these religious visitors said. But the songs – my primary school songs! They were still with me, and I could remember every single word. I was well aware, of course, that Christmas was really just the credulous pilfering of a pagan winter festival. And I’d been told the Virgin Birth was a fabrication based on a deliberate mistranslation of an Old Testament prophet. And yet I couldn’t walk the snowy paths home from school or watch Christmas lights go up in my town without hearing a refrain within me, subtle and deep-seated as a heartbeat: O come, let us adore him; O come, let us adore him.

    My late teens coincided with the glory days of the New Atheists, and barely ten years on from Christingle and Nativity plays the little shepherd boys, wise men, and makers of arts-and-crafts Christmas cribs were on the subreddit r/atheism talking about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the cosmological implausibility of the Book of Genesis, clammy and red-eyed in the pale light of their parents’ PC monitors. The year I turned seventeen I received Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion from my parents – as a Christmas present. Like many of my peers I revered Richard Dawkins, a man who has described the God of the Old Testament as a genocidal tyrant, considers faith to be one of the modern world’s greatest evils, and who also, on several occasions, has spoken of his fondness for the sung prayer of evensong and the musical and literary patrimony of Christianity in general – a fondness which he describes as his “Anglican nostalgia.” This attitude to Christianity may seem bizarre and almost painfully contradictory, but I suspect that if the professor had been in the back of that Birmingham taxi he would have joined in our impromptu carol service with gusto.

    When I first picked up a Bible, the year I left school – surreptitiously, a little shamefacedly, telling myself it was for research purposes only – I assumed that the narrative of the Gospels would be largely alien to me. After all, I’d spent over a decade of religious education classes engaged in daydreaming or sabotage. But I found that the infancy narratives of Luke and of Matthew were both very familiar to me. I had braced myself to enter new territory, and yet found myself in a country I had visited before. There were landmarks I recognized: the Magi were from “We Three Kings of Orient Are”; the angels were from “What Child Is This”; Mary I had met in “Silent Night.” But there was something else I recognized – my own interior sense that something astounding was taking place. It was a sense I had first encountered, first received, as a small child singing in school assembly. My memories of carol singing had certainly given me the basic facts I needed of the story of Christ’s birth. But they had also given me wonder.

    In the Parable of the Sower, the seed of God’s word can only take root in rich soil; the rocky and the scorched earth cannot yield the abundant harvest, thirty- and sixty- and a hundred-fold, which the word promises. Would I have become rich soil if not for that music planted in my memory? Who would have considered my seven-year-old self, or indeed any of my classmates at that age, to be potentially fertile ground for the gospel? Our teachers, at least, showed no more interest in Christianity than we did. Whatever was going through their minds as they pressed play on the tape recorder I do not know, but I wonder if they weren’t unwittingly guided by the hand of divine Providence. The adult I am today, the adult who knows and believes, owes more than she can understand to the child who listened, sang, and remembered twenty years ago.

    I had braced myself to enter new territory, and yet found myself in a country I had visited before.

    My generation is not an easy one to evangelize. Any Christian apologist will tell you that you need to meet people where they are; but where exactly are we? Where to start breaking ground with the millennial “nones” when they seem to share no common ground at all with the Christian faith? That common ground may not be found in morality or metaphysics; but it may still be found in beauty. From my own experience, I know that music can plant seeds in the most apparently dry and unyielding of soil. Those seeds are sometimes seeds of knowledge, but more often of the wonder that seeks knowledge. This is not to say I believe that my experience of religious education and collective worship should be replicated as a norm. All I can say is that this is what I was given, and this is where it got me.

    In my case, those musical roots have produced a fruit that is unusually and particularly visible. But it heartens me to wonder what might be growing in the interior soil of my former classmates, and to know that today, in my hometown, there are a large number of twenty- and thirty-somethings who haven’t darkened the door of a church for decades, who think the Reverend Emblin and Pastor David were silly and deluded old men, and yet can tell you in an instant that Jesus Christ was born the King of Angels on a silent night, a holy night.

    Music shapes the memory, and memory shapes the person. Advent is when we remember that God came to earth as a tiny child, and will come again in glory at the end of the ages; it is the time when I remember that his coming in between, his coming to abide in each human heart and human memory, is a coming no less mysterious and unexpected.

    Contributed By SrCarinoHodder Sr. Carino Hodder, OP

    Sister Carino Hodder, OP is a Dominican Sister of St Joseph based in Hampshire, England. She made her First Profession in September 2019.

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