Ghosts of Christmas Past

By | 13 December 2007

If you left the classroom last summer and you’ve had a great term not being a teacher, I’ll bet there will be a moment this term when you really miss school.
Somewhere in the last two weeks before Christmas, something – the date, the weather, a snatch of a carol on the radio – will remind you of your school carol service, and I almost guarantee, you will miss it.
If you’ve worked in schools for more than 10 minutes, the carol service will be part of the cycle of your year, a wonderful marker for the simple fact that you – and they – made it through another long autumn term. Very often they are on the last day of term, and the goodwill to all men is palpable – not there the day before, forgotten by January, but very real at the time.
Teachers all turn into Scrooge, not the stingy one, the one on Christmas morning, when he has had his fright and is returned anew to the world, leaping down the streets wishing a “Merry Christmas” to anyone who will listen.
Children too seem to be more like Tiny Tim than like the Artful Dodger they resemble for much of the rest of the year – they sing in choirs like angels, they read lessons without stumbling over the words, they sing the carols. Really, sing. Marvellous, not a dry eye in the house.
The best carol services are surely the ones where the whole school decamps to a church, where the cool aisles and lofty stones serve as instant disciplinarians for children less used to church-going even than Phillip Larkin.
You can’t beat a big school in a cathedral with a powerful organ, though I realise that is asking rather a lot, and, a village school girl myself, there’s a lot to be said for a small Hardy-esque church and a close community, where every parent knows every child and feels that Christmas has really begun when they have sung at least one chorus of Oh Come all ye Faithful.
In what feels like a life-time of carol service-going, including seven years as a desperate deputy trying to make sure the whole thing was hitch-free, and six years as a head, the very best have not been those in my own schools.
They have been in my sons’ schools, two different schools in both of which the atmosphere was transformed by candlelight.
In my elder son’s school, the candles were on the walls, and occasionally ladies complained that the candle wax had dripped on their coats. No matter – a small price to pay for a hush in the large chapel before the piercing voice of a boy soprano ushered in the choir with the haunting first verse of Once in Royal David’s City. It was as if the 20th century faded away to insignificance as the candles glimmered and the voices grew to welcome and recall the birth of Jesus.
The second school had the benefit of an almost circular church, with large open spaces and a central altar. This time the candles were long, elegant tapers, hand held. Yes, everyone got a taper. Even little children, who were so entranced they waved them like wands and I nearly had a heart attack fearing for the long hair of the ladies in the row in front as the candles wobbled and wavered in excited hands.
I later asked the head how he coped with the risk assessment for every member of a congregation of over a thousand in a packed church having their own candle burning in their hands for a little over an hour and he seemed completely at ease. “We’ve been doing it for years – never been a problem!” he beamed.
Maybe the good Lord was watching over all his carol services. And you could believe it, as once again the darkened church with the pin points of light said more about the fragility of faith itself in our modern world than even the carols themselves, rousing and stirring though they were.
In our multi-cultural world, I do hope the carol service will survive. Without it, the world is a darker place. I very much hope I can sneak a place at a school service, even if I do not work in a school and no longer have children of school age, for years to come. Christmas just would not be the same without it.

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