Ian McMillan: It means so much to sing the songs of Christmas

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HERE’S me at Sheffield Cathedral the other night taking part in the Carol Service for the Alzheimer’s Society; we’re all singing O Come All Ye Faithful and I’m belting it out like a good ‘un.

Some of the singers in this vast space have got lovely voices, and there are a couple of wobbling chapel sopranos and a few who only sing when they’re in a crowd at a football match but nobody seems to mind. I’m enthusiastic but unskilled and somehow I keep choosing different notes and keys to the rest of them; my voice appears to be too deep and too grunty inside my chest and it feels like it’s reverberating around the upper half of my body in a way that might disturb the radar of any planes that happen to be passing and shake the foundations of this venerable place of worship.

It seems to me that at this time of year a lot of people who would never normally open their mouths except to yawn, eat or yak find themselves singing. They turn up to the school Nativity play or the works do or the party in the Community Centre, and although they were only expecting mince pies and a slab of cake, they find a carol sheet thrust into their hand and before they know it they’re singing.

Memories of schooldays or choirs or trips round cold winter streets to earn a few bob come back and they raise their voices in the space, which is all that singing is in the end: filling a space with your voice, whether that space is your bathroom or the Albert Pub or the Albert Hall. I’m not a religious man but there’s something about the old faithful carols that really stirs my spirit. If I’ve got a favourite then I guess it’s God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen but I’d be hard pressed to say why; the tune and the words seem to have branded themselves into my mind like a tattoo and all I can think is that it must have been a favourite of Mr Owen, the head teacher at Low Valley Juniors when I was a boy, and we must have sung it almost daily from December 1 to breaking up.

I even know that there should be a comma after merry and before gentlemen so that they’re not Merry Gentlemen, they’re gentlemen who are resting merry. Mr Owen was a stickler for the proper use of language and no doubt he’d have spent several minutes of a particular assembly showing us where the comma went.

In the end though, the words don’t seem to mean very much; somehow these gentlemen and their merry resting just become a kind of sound, a noise you make with your mouth, something that’s beyond meaning, something primitive and beautiful like a Neanderthal person explaining, with the aid of noises coming from his mouth, the principles of fire to his mate in a cave that used to be chilly.

Towards the end of the concert we were treated to two songs by the South Yorkshire branch of Singing for The Brain, a choir of people with Alzheimer’s and their carers. Singing For The Brain is a nationwide movement that recognises the benefits that singing can have for memory, for general mental and physical health and for a sense of community.

That’s why we sing at football matches: you feel part of a group who’ve shared good times and bad, 4-0 defeats and great cup runs, promotions and relegations and pies that stayed with you for days. That’s why we sing the familiar carols: their familiarity gives them a kind of magic, like a story that you want to hear over and over again or a recipe that always works or a view of a lake that you can get enough of.

Singing For The Brain sang The First Noel and in the chorus the sometimes thin, sometimes reedy and hesitant voices suddenly filled with power.

People who couldn’t do the verses joined in the chorus, and people who couldn’t do the chorus found volume and purpose on the word Noel. It was amazing. Then they sang a song that wasn’t particularly Christmassy but which seemed to fit, indeed to shape, the mood perfectly. “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, never let it fade away,” they sang, and memories flooded in and circled around all our minds: the singers, the rest of the congregation and me. My mam used to sing along to that one when it came on Two Way Family Favourites on a Sunday dinnertime when the Yorkshires were coming out of the oven and the kitchen was filled with wreaths of steam from the veg in the pan.

At the end of Catch a Falling Star we clapped and, I’m pleased to say, there were one or two muted whoops. So as Christmas approaches be like me: sing at any opportunity you get. You know it makes sense. Or something far beyond sense, but much more profound.