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Sheffield Carols in the Winter Gardens. Photo credit, James Merryclough
Photo credit: James Merryclough

A Beginner’s Guide to the Sheffield Carols

Heading to the Sheffield Carols? Want to know where to go, what songs to sing and a little of the etiquette? We've got you covered.

What says Christmas more festively than the tale of a young bride accidentally locking herself in a wooden chest while playing hide and seek on her wedding day, only to be discovered years later “…withering there in a living tomb”?

Ahhh, November.

Crisp autumnal mornings. Fireworks. Bonfires. Toffee apples. Christmas carols…

But, it’s November…?

Yes, while festivities won’t be starting for several more weeks across the rest of the country, in a select number of village pubs around the northeast of Sheffield, mid-November (and on into December, obviously), it’s firmly carol season.

The tradition known as the Sheffield Carols begins the week after Armistice Sunday, which this year means that if you head to the Sportsman on Redmires Road on Monday 14th November at around 8:30 you’ll be greeted with rousing choruses of ‘Spout Cottage’, ‘While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks By Night’ (several times – more on this later), and ‘Hail Smiling Morn’. But go along expecting ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ or ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’ and you’ll be sadly disappointed. 

I had no idea Sheffield had invented its own repertoire of carols!

I should start by saying that the name ‘Sheffield Carols’ is something of 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.

Time for a bit of history…

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. So, out went ‘Jacob’s Well’, ‘Mount Moriah’ and ‘Diadem’ and in came the, well, let’s be honest, somewhat dreary selection most of us sang at school.

But telling people they shouldn’t enjoy something is no guarantee that it’ll stop. So, when these carols were no longer welcome in church, they found a home – where else? – in the local pub. For whatever reason, this tradition survived in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, but died out elsewhere. Although, as Tradfolk discussed last year, this Sheffield tradition also made it to the small American town of Glen Rock, York County, PA, where it has continued for almost 200 years.

That sounds like a fascinating study of social history. Please tell me more.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the history of the carols, but luckily one man is. Professor Ian Russell of the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen dedicated several years in the early 70s to researching and writing about Traditional Singing in West Sheffield for his PhD at the now-defunct Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies at the University of Leeds. He didn’t stop there, and has been championing the carols ever since, not least with his publications of both Sheffield and Derbyshire Village Carols. There are also some more academic studies on the tradition, and where else you might find it, here. For a more in-depth study on the tradition, that’s probably a good place to start.

OK, back to the sings themselves. What, exactly, is sung?

A huge variety of carols – mostly, but by no means exclusively, religious in nature. You’ll find carols you might vaguely recognise in most pubs; ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, ‘While Shepherds Watched’ (several times – we will get to this shortly I promise), and ‘Awake Arise Good Christians’, along with ‘Hark, Hark’ (two harks), and also ‘Hark, Hark! What news’ (same words, but with four harks) as a few examples

But you will also find yourself singing carols you’re wholly unfamiliar with, some religious and some not, and some with no obvious link to Christmas at all. (Check out this Tradfolk article on whether or not a carol can be for life, not just for Christmas.)

Most sessions will have some kind of accompaniment; at the Royal in Dungworth it’s an electric organ, at others it’s a piano. The local brass bands, Loxley and Stannington, will usually make an appearance at one or two pubs over the season, as well as traipsing their respective villages in the run-up to Christmas.

So, religion is still a big part of the tradition?

Perhaps for some, but for the most part, no. It is a secular tradition, mainly about community and getting together to sing because that’s what has always been done. For most people the religious messages of the carols are secondary to them being great tunes to belt out in a packed pub fueled by pints of beer. 

This all sounds great! One problem, though. I can’t really sing.

While most of the seasoned carollers can at the least hold a note (with some who can do much more than that, and often a smattering of professional folkies in attendance, too), the emphasis is very much on participation and volume rather than nuanced singing dynamics. It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts. The room tends to find a broad tune.

That said, regulars tend to know their part, with call-and-response phrases being sung by different sections of the pub; basses by the bar and lead melodies at the toilets. Then again, some people enjoy singing different parts of different songs (or even within the same carol) so will happily switch without much bother. 

Any particular favourites we should know about?

‘The Mistletoe Bough’, which is always sung as a solo (here by Jon Boden and here by Will Noble, both at the Royal Hotel, Dungworth). What says Christmas more festively than the tale of a young bride accidentally locking herself in a wooden chest while playing hide and seek on her wedding day, only to be discovered years later “…withering there in a living tomb”?

The story, which I think we can all agree is particularly festive, is believed to have some basis in truth, although no one can quite agree where it happened. It is wonderfully portrayed in this 1904 silent film.

A slightly more traditionally-themed carol is ‘Stannington‘ which, ironically enough, is also one of the most recent to enter the tradition and one that Sheffield can rightfully lay claim to. Another solo, it was written by Mina Dyson, a resident of Stannington (a village just to the North West of Sheffield, where I also happen to live) in the early 1950s and has been part of the Sheffield carol tradition ever since. Mina also wrote ‘Bradfield’, named after another village a few miles away, and there are other carols with local names – ‘Malin Bridge’, ‘Spout Cottage’ and ‘Back Lane’ to name a few (although no one can agree on where the last two are).

I’ll also throw a shout-out for ‘Hail! Smiling Morn‘, here sung by a very raucous and packed ‘congregation’ at the Royal Hotel, Dungworth. Christmas makes no appearance in this one whatsoever, which is perhaps why it is also commonly sung as an Easter carol. It’s associated with a number of traditions around the country, including Whit Friday in Saddleworth and the Selkirk Common Riding, held to commemorate the Battle of Flodden in the Scottish borders. 

Go on then, tell us about ‘While Shepherds Watched’

Go to any of the village pub carol sessions and you will find yourself singing ‘While Shepherds’ Watched a number of times. That’s not because everyone has a particularly soft spot for it, but because the words are set to a number of different tunes – dozens, in fact. A little tradfolk trivia for you: in the 18th Century, ‘While Shepherds Watched’ was the only Christmas hymn, or carol, which was permitted to be sung in Anglican Church.

So, in the true spirit of innovation, multiple versions sprung up. This is why you won’t find ‘While Shepherds Watched’ called as the next song, but ‘Liverpool’, ‘Sweet Bells’, ‘Lyngham’, ‘Old Foster’ or ‘Fern Bank’, to name but a few. Another tune, ‘Cranbrook’, composed around 1800, was a popular version during the early 1800s long before it went on to become better known as the tune for ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at‘ sometime in the mid-19th Century.

I’ve been told that attendees once decided to sing nothing but versions of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ for the whole evening. I’ll pass on that one, thanks.

You’ve mentioned a couple of times that pubs have different repertoires. Tell us more.

Yes, indeed. While there are constants across the tradition, each pub will have slightly different repertoires. So a carol enjoyed on one side of the valley won’t be sung in a pub on another and woe betide anyone who suggests it.

There are also slight variations in some of the verses sung in different pubs, which is obviously great when you start belting out one verse, only to find something different being sung…

Sounds like it might be hard for an outsider to join in?

Not at all! The sessions are all incredibly welcoming, and someone will always be willing to share a set of words and some encouragement for those unsure of what they’re meant to be singing. Ultimately, everyone wants the tradition to continue and flourish, so first-timers are always made welcome.

There is a reasonably comprehensive book of words for the most common carols available from the Handsworth Sword Dancers, and many pubs will also sell a booklet of words called The Joy of Christmas (known locally as The Blue Book, which is also available with the sheet music if you prefer).

Is there anything else we should know?

There is a certain etiquette that newcomers should be aware of. The pubs can get extremely busy, with standing room only. Don’t turn up five minutes before the start and expect to be able to get a space in the main singing room. And don’t take up valuable singing space in the main room if you’re not there to participate fully.

Solos are usually done by set people at each pub; you can’t just stand up and sing whatever you fancy. They should be observed with respectful silence until it’s time to join in the chorus or final verse.

When the traditional refrain, “pass your glasses to the bar…” starts up, well, you can probably guess what you need to do.

Are the carols a really big part of Christmas in Sheffield?

For the villages directly involved – Dungworth, Worrall, Stannington, Oughtibridge, Wharncliffe Side – there is still a broad collective knowledge of the traditions’ existence, even if not everyone continues to take part. In Stannington, for example, the annual live nativity which traipses the three local pubs with donkeys, sheep and a newborn baby in tow and attracts a few hundred people, involves the singing of local carols, rather than better-known counterparts. 

The University of Sheffield usually runs a local carols workshop for staff and students, and local folk organisation Soundpost runs Carols In The Winter Gardens as an introductory outreach event in December.

Across the rest of Sheffield, however, the tradition is largely confined to those with an interest in folk music and song generally. It forms a big part of the traditional longsword performances by Grenoside and Handsworth teams on Boxing Day, for example. 

Right! I want to go carolling! Where and when?

The main regular sings around Sheffield are at The Sportsman, Redmires Road on Mondays; the Crown and Glove, Stannington, Tuesdays; The Stocks, Ecclesfield, Thursdays; The Travellers Rest, Oughtibridge, Saturdays; and The Royal, Dungworth, The Blue Ball, Worrall, and The Wharncliffe Arms, Wharncliffe Side, all on Sundays. There are also several other villages slightly further afield in North Derbyshire with a tradition of pub singing and more irregular sessions, and other pubs in the Sheffield area which hold one-off sessions, often with the local brass bands.

For a full, and up-to-date list of dates, times and pubs, see the Village Carols Facebook page.

A map of the Sheffield Carols venues mentioned in this article

The Festival of Village Carols

Saturday 3 December, 2022

The Festival of Village Carols makes its return to Grenoside this year, directed by Ian Russell. The aforementioned Glen Rock Carollers will be making the long trip from Pennsylvania to perform, and there are opportunities to learn the vocal and instrumental parts of some of the local carols at workshops during the day. These are performed by everyone at the Grand Sing when there is also the opportunity to hear each of the guest groups perform carols from their own tradition. Tickets are available here.

A Sheffield Carols Spotify Playlist