Day 19: Sans Day Carol

The Sans Day Carol is a Cornish carol written sometime in the 19th century. Wikipedia postures that the it was notated from a singing villager in St Day parish, perhaps during the folk song collecting craze that was sweeping Europe in the last third of the century.

Miss Mussel was about to embed the King’s College version when she spotted the deliciously-named performed here by the deliciously-named Holman Climax Male Voice Choir. That serendipitous click led to this lovely little story:

In 1940 at the Climax Rock Drill and Engineering Works, at Pool, between Camborne and Redruth, Cornwall, two men working on the works roof saw the glow of the fires in Plymouth caused by the bombing by the Luftwaffe. To alleviate distress among the blitz victims they formed a small choir to raise funds.

In the video, the last verse is sung in Cornish, a language in which roughly 375 people are still fluent.

The hymn is very similar in text to the Holly and The Ivy but for Miss Mussel, it is the weak beat accents that make this setting so bewitching. Three out of the four verses are about the Passion, which fits with the theological idea that Advent is a period of looking forward to Easter rather than an end in itself.

Miss Mussel first heard this carol in 2005 when she was working in a primary school in Manchester. Most of the city is shockingly deprived but this school’s catchement area was its own little enclave of poverty in one of the most affluent areas of town.

Children who are literally afraid to play outside at home for fear of getting stabbed come with their own set of social problems and, more often than you might think, rewards.

It was the school assembly on the last day of school before the holidays and the children gathered for carol singing and the pageant. Since a good proportion of the children were Muslim, it was not a Nativity play as such, but the alternate subject matter did not stop the drama from unfolding in the way these things always do.

Some lines were mumbled while others were shouted in that flat voice children use when they don’t really understand what they’re saying. Shy children, too dumbstruck to even mime along with their class carol, stared into the middle distance, mentally mapping out the most efficient route to the nearest exit.

Primary schools in the UK have a nursery class of three year olds. This means that just like in a Sunday School pageant, the kids just stand there and look cute while their teacher does a duet on Away In A Manger with the one fearless pupil who is destined for Broadway.

Once the pageant finished, the musically-inclined but terribly shy Year 4 teacher discovered that the CD player wasn’t working and proceeded to do her best to lead 200 squirming children in a few carols.

It was magical.

Despite receiving exactly 0 minutes of music training while at school the children were completely transfixed. They stopped poking their respective neighbours or whispering to their friends in the next row and remarkably, not one child used their lusty treble to sing the silly version of the lyrics.

Perhaps the most miraculous of all, the Year 6 boys joined in as well. These boys, the gang leaders, hustlers and con men of tomorrow, who at age 11 were already trying out the arrogant swagger of their fathers and brothers, were singing. In the five minutes before self-conscious snickers made their way down the row and made gay any boy who continued to sing, they were doing what every other kid their age does.

There is no Music Of The Heart ending to this story. 20 minutes of singing a year does not alleviate poverty or discourage kids from choosing crime as a career. It did, however, give them 20 more minutes of normalcy than they would have otherwise had.

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