Christmas in Coventry
I am an unashamed Christmas addict. I watch every Christmas special and Christmas baking show with barely contained glee. My decorations went on the first week of December and I love to drive around the city to see peoples Christmas lights. As a child at Christmas I was taken on a special trip to see the lights in Stratford, Leamington and the other Warwickshire towns. This year I dragged my partner out to do the same. I think Coventry has made a special effort with the decorations this year. The tree in Broadgate is particularly lovely. I’m looking forwards to a cosy family Christmas with just enough sweet and sticky festive liqueur to keep my toes warm.
But you can’t mention Christmas in Coventry without mentioning the Coventry Carol. The carol was started as part of the famous Coventry Mystery Plays. These plays were put on by local guilds, probably as a way of sharing bible stories with the uneducated masses. They were first recorded in the late 14th century but probably are older still. The original cycle would have included 10 plays but only two have survived in manuscript form. One of these is the nativity story, which includes the beautiful Coventry Carol.
A traditional arrangement. Robert Shaw Chamber Singers
The carol is as old as the mystery cycle its self and is possibly one of the oldest carols popular today. It mourns the slaughter of the innocents, Herod’s order to kill all children in Bethlehem to prevent the birth of the new king. Originally written for three female voices the song depicts Bethlehem’s women singing a lullaby to both the baby Jesus and their murdered children. The oldest recording of the lyrics come from Robert Croo, ‘manager’ of the mystery plays in the 1500 before the plays were supressed later in the 16th century.
Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child,
By by, lully, lullay, thow littell tyne child,
By by, lully, lullay!
O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This pore yongling for whom we do singe
By by, lully, lullay?
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Chargid he hath this day
His men of might in his owne sight
All yonge children to slay,—
That wo is me, pore child, for thee,
And ever morne and may
For thi parting nether say nor singe,
By by, lully, lullay
Robert Croo, 1534
Obviously the carol has been changed and modernised over the years. Its continued appeal after so many years is part of its mystery. The song is actually drab and ponderous, the only carol in a minor key. It is mournful, slow and very gloomy. Not something that you would usually associate with the Christmas season. But the song has a haunting irresistible beauty, and that is what keeps the sad carol so popular. It may be going too far to think that people appreciate a drop of sorrow in the potentially sickly sweetness of Christmas time, but a little pathos goes a long way.
A modern version by Annie Lennox
There are so many versions of the carol, not all of which I like. But the variety that you can get from such a simple, short and old carol is awe-inspiring. It’s something that Coventrians should be proud of, a link to Coventry’s mediaeval history that is recognised the world over.
If you want to see some fantastic Christmas lights then head over to Coundon to see the Coundon Christmas Lights and donate to Zoe’s Place by texting cclc80 to 70070. Believe me, its well worth the trip. You can find the lights on Barker Butt’s Lane.
Whatever you’re doing with your Christmas holiday have a happy break!