Robin Blount: ecumenical notes, cruise ship chaplaincy and lots more


13 December 2023

I nearly always drive my car with ClassicFM in the background. Apart from the occasional moan about Alexander Armstrong's wordy style, it's a pleasant way to get where I'm going. However, for the last couple of weeks my listening has been interrupted by ClassicFM's invitation, encouragement even, to vote for the nation's favourite carol. And it seems that every piece of music played at the moment is followed by a carol.

Yesterday Lesley and I went to the Christmas Lunch of U3A in a local hotel. After lunch we were treated to Christmas songs and carols by children from a local primary school. They sang well and we well-fed listeners applauded them. I suppose it was predictable that half-way through their short concert one young lad was taken to the loo, and another lad in the front row fainted halfway through a song which then petered to a stop. But it was enjoyable, nonetheless.

However, I couldn't help wondering whether in a few years' time, when these children are grown up, any of them will be part of a church family. Carols have become an essential background to the merry Christmas we wish each other, but do people know the meaning behind the story?

Carols tell the story straight out of the gospels, so we have the wandering star, the wise men, shepherds, stable and all the other stories that can be prised out of Matthew and Luke. And while very few people believe in, for example, the virgin birth, that bit of the storyline is repeated countless times in carol services and broadcasts. Do carols actually tell us anything that will bring the life and influence of Jesus into the 21st century? Or do we mentally disassociate what we're singing from what we actually believe about Jesus? There are many "new" hymns that have been written in the last half-century which set the gospel story in the modern era, but carols have a life and a story all of their own, pushing the story of Jesus back into the cosiness of fairy stories.

Can we gently introduce modern carols into our Christmastide services? It will have to be done sensitively - for instance, Martin Leckebusch's carol "O West Bank town of Bethlehem" is a powerful statement in the present tragedy of Gaza, and there's an excellent variation of Good King Wenceslas in the hymn "Once upon a time they went, king and page together" written by Fred Pratt Green.

I have words of seventeen modern carols. If you'd like the list, I can email it to you. ( There are many more around - Christmas needs to be brought back into today's suffering world. Of course we enjoy - and need - a break from the daily routines of life, and Christmas even without the religious overtones is a wonderful time of friendship, generosity and family togetherness. But Christmas is still a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and we need to recognise and tell the story behind all the familiar trappings which keep pushing Jesus back into a stable.

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