What could be more true to the spirit of Christmas than standing in a crowded pub and singing Christmas carols? Especially if the tunes are only to be heard in a few towns and villages near Sheffield, in South Yorkshire.
I first heard about the Sheffield Carols from a friend who lives in the city. She knows I love pubs and she also knows I grew up in a musical family. I’ve been in and around choirs since before I was born.
It’s a big thing, she explained, that goes on from mid-November until into the New Year, and is unique to the region.
I was fascinated and became determined to visit Sheffield during caroling season. Of course it took a couple of years to get that trip scheduled but this year, finally, we made it.
The website Tradfolk has a good explainer by James Merryclough. He begins by explaining that ‘Sheffield Carols’ is a misnomer:
With a few exceptions, the carols themselves do not originate from Sheffield, but rather Sheffield is where the tradition of singing carols in pubs has been maintained. Go back 200 years or so and the repertoire of carols that are now largely only known in Sheffield’s pubs would have been commonplace across the country… The Sheffield Carols are, mostly, carols as they used to be. Which is to say, at a time before it was decided that the questionable Christian doctrine and folky heritage of these earlier, earthier carols didn’t belong in England’s increasingly pious churches.
This is where the connection with pubs comes in. If you can’t sing your favourite carols in church, because the vicar will give you the stink eye, the pub is the obvious place to keep them alive.
Professor Ian Russell wrote a thesis on Traditional Singing in West Sheffield 1971-72. It has tons of detail on the culture surrounding pub singing and makes clear that it wasn’t just done at Christmas. It’s just that (if I’ve understood this correctly) as year-round pub singing died out, Christmas became the exception.
One fascinating detail in the tradition of Sheffield Carols is the repetition of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’. It’s often performed multiple times with different tunes. They’re recorded in the songbook by the name of the town or village associated with each version.
To actually hear (and maybe join in with) the Sheffield Carols we took a tram to the end of the line at Middlewood and then trekked up a hill and along a wintry country road (‘liable to flooding’) until we reached the village of Worrall.
There, we found The Blue Ball Inn, absolutely packed, and throbbing with music.
We couldn’t actually get into the room where the bulk of the carol singers were massed around an organ. Instead, we found ourselves a perch near the coat rack by the door.
For two hours, the crowd drank ale, ate roast beef and roast potatoes, and sang together.
Some people had books of music, or just of the words, bought from behind the bar.
Others who had clearly been singing these songs their whole lives belted out the words from memory, swinging pint glasses, wrangling dogs, or feeding toddlers as they did so.
Even though the tunes were unfamiliar, and sometimes unusual, most were easy to pick up, especially as many have repetitive elements within a verse, or call-and-response structures.
It definitely pays to memorise the words to ‘While Shepherds Watched’. We counted four versions and there may have been more before we arrived.
Here’s an example of the ‘Pentonville’ version from another pub, at another time:
This was truly one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a hearty dose of Christmas spirit combined with some English cultural tourism.
You can still catch Sheffield Carols being sung for a few weeks yet. Check out this calendar for dates and details.