Forgotten Carols Concert

Heartfelt hymns and forgotten songs at St Bride's Church Hall bring the magic back to Christmas

It’s rare to hear a really good rendition of traditional Christmas carols. All too often they come out limp and lacklustre, a bit half-hearted, having lost almost all the sense of wonder they were originally supposed to convey.

Worst of all, there’s the ubiquitous seasonal racket of popular Christmas songs looped in the shops. Slade’s 'Merry Xmas Everybody' now seems like the inevitable soundtrack to feeling stressed, overheated and laden with carrier bags full of pointless gifts.

So a recent evening of unusual carols at St Bride’s Church Hall in south Belfast was especially welcome to my jaded ears. Forgotten Carols, organised and presented by Scottish songwriter and community choir director Alison Burns, brought together local people from all ages and walks of life to perform songs for the darkest days of the year. 

The aim was 'to put magic and meaning back into midwinter and Christmas'. And the surprising harmonies and curious melodies of old songs like 'The Wren She Lies in Care’s Bed' (based on a 1776 manuscript of Scots songs and poems) and 'Heire Bannag' (a Gaelic song from Lewis and Mingalay, collected by Alexander Carmichael in the late 19th century) weave a strange spell over the audience.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Forgotten Carols – now in its fourth year as an annual event in Belfast – is that anyone can join the preparatory workshops and final concert performance. There is no audition, and this is not a professional choir. Yet the singing is clear, strong and full of feeling. 

While Burns arranges and teaches the material – mainly long-lost or obscure British, Irish and American folk carols – the onus is on the participants to learn the words and music by heart. This adds an extra dimension; certainly it feeks like these ancient words are sung from the heart, not from the page. Given the nature of the material, it seems fitting that amateurs, rather than professionals, are the performers – these ancient songs have their roots in cottage firesides and tiny village churches rather than grand concert halls.

There’s a certain irreverence about several of the carols too. 'Sweet Chiming Bells', a rollicking version of the more sedate 'While Shepherds Watched their Flocks', is a Victorian ale-house carol: official church disapproval of more florid carol arrangements meant that people simply took their more colourful seasonal songs down to the pub. 

And it’s thought that the almost goblinish 'Sing May, Queen May, Sing Mary', taken from a 14th century manuscript, may have been a much more fleshly tale than the church would have us believe - the strange symbolism seems to describe a womb and its impregnation.

Interspersed with the carols themselves are a series of readings of seasonal poetry and prose, performed with great energy, humour and sensitivity by noted actor Laura Hughes. In a season dominated by tackiness and gross consumerism, Forgotten Carols is a celebration of the subtler, richer forms of Christmas joy.

Fionola Meredith