A Christmas carol

I HAVE JUST HEARD a BBC concert of Christmas music this evening (18th of December 2020). The performance was good, the music and songs enjoyable, and that was just about it until we reached the final item, a performance of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. The ‘author’ of the words of this carol, which were originally in Latin, is uncertain but might be one of the following: John Francis Wade (1711–1786), John Reading (1645–1692), King John IV of Portugal (1604–1656), and anonymous Cistercian monks. Hearing this carol evoked strong emotions and recalled memories of long ago.

St Michaels, Highgate

Every Christmas term when I was at school, we had to sing the carol in Latin. Its first verse is as follows:

“Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,

Venite, venite in Bethlehem.

Natum videte

Regem angelorum:

Venite adoremus, venite adoremus, venite adoremus,

Dominum.”

Hearing the tune of this hymn transports my mind to the wooden pews in the large draughty nave of the Victorian Church of St Michael in Highgate (built by 1832). Our school’s Christmas Carol service took place in that church. For some inexplicable reason, the carol moved me much more than any of the other carols that were sung year after year, and whenever I hear it, it still stirs up strong emotions.

After leaving my school in Highgate, and completing my PhD, I used to spend Christmas with my PhD supervisor, Professor Robert Harkness, and his family. On Christmas morning after breakfast, we used to tramp across the fields in the Buckinghamshire countryside to Hedgerley Church, where we attended a Christmas morning service. The service involved carol singing. The song “O, Come All Ye Faithful” was sung every year, in its English translation. Robert, who had been schooled at Winchester and had a strong, good singing voice, always sung the song in Latin whilst everyone around him sung it in English.

I left school fifty years ago. I last spent Christmas with the Harkness family in about 1998, and Robert died in 2006. Far off as these events are becoming, hearing this carol, either in Latin or in English, always manages to evoke a welling of nostalgic feelings. Why this should occur, is a mystery to me.

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