Where I stay is a very rural kind of place, even for Wales. About half a mile up the narrow lane is a pretty little chapel where services are held every two weeks on Sunday afternoons. I don't generally get to those services but every year I'm asked to sing a song at the annual Christmas Carol Service at the chapel, and this year was no exception.
Now it seems to pass that invariably I come down with the flu, a cold, or some kind of vocal crud, and this year was no exception, either. So just a couple of days ago I found myself selecting a song to sing on the basis of what's easiest to sing when you're down with the crud. I came up with "Away In A Manger" which, really, has a fairly easy range for anyone who can sing at all. Now a few songs I might have chosen were eliminated because they're too complex for me to play confidently on the guitar. And some I rejected because they really need to be sung as duets. So as usual I came up with things like Away In A Manger and Silent Night (you can't go wrong with that.)
Here in Wales one of the first things an American attending a chapel carol service might learn is that 1) the "music" isn't included -- the hymnals are modest little red books with the words crammed slam into them; they must be about 9 point -- even with reading glasses on they are challenging. Next an American might figure out that the same songs aren't necessarily sung here in Wales as one might expect at an American carol service. Oh no. And perhaps the most amazing thing to discover is that most likely the tunes and very often all the words are entirely different to the American version as well. So be prepared to be surprised.
We're quite spoiled in America to have churches that are mostly fairly new and ones that have good insulation. Most of the churches and many of the chapels in Wales are quite old (like 1000 years old in the case of many of the churches). Many of the chapels in these parts are about 150 years old, certainly not old by British standards. They are constructed of materials that are readily available in a particular area, so it's no surprise that here where I live and stone is quarried, the floors are made of huge flagstones and there aren't any rugs on them. The pews are of course nice old wood and unadorned by cushions (most of the churches have cushions). The walls are invariably made of stone and often whitewashed.
You may wonder why I keep distinguishing between church and chapel. Now I'm not paid for my definitions, but here's the way I've come to understand the distinction: in this country, "church" means "Church of England" or "Church of Wales" and that's the Anglican church, not far off what's called Episcopal in America. The Queen of England is head of the Anglican church (talk about a difference: no separation of church and state here). A "church" is a church, regardless of size.
Now a "chapel" is a non-Anglican house of worship, regardless of size. These "chapels" are considered "non-conformist" which really means that it's non-Anglican. Baptists, Methodists, etc. are all non-conformists here and even if the house of worship is very large indeed it's still called a "chapel" because it simply ain't a church!
As it happens the chapel I attended this evening is a chapel even by my standards. It's a small, white stone building, quite unadorned and Calvinistic looking. Our carol service began at 6:30 pm, a good time of day for folks who make their living on the land like so many in my "neighborhood," and among the congregation were several farmers, farmers' wives and children of farmers. I'm told that services at the chapel are normally attended by only a few people, but the carol service is normally overflowing (meaning about 50 people).
Every year there's a different "preacher." I found tonight's interesting because he was from Swansea in south Wales. I talked with him after the service and learned that he has never learned any Welsh at all; as a child it was looked down upon to speak Welsh and though his mother was raised in the Welsh language, his father didn't speak a word of it and it was forbidden in their home. The preacher was a jolly very portly man with a rich voice and a singing way of talking. That's how you know you're speaking with a Welshman, even if he doesn't speak Welsh, he sings when he talks. It's a beautiful thing. So I was riveted to the preacher's every word. There were seven children there this evening and they sang three songs -- "Away In A Manger" (different words AND different tune to the American way), Jingle Bells, and We Wish You A Merry Christmas. All were sung with zest and joy and I couldn't help but grin the whole way through. The kids also did a superb job with their Scripture readings and the hour-long service was over before we knew it. Maybe that's a good thing. As I started to explain, no rugs, stone floors and walls, no insulation and precious little heat (just a small space heater) spells COLD!!!! Prepare to freeze to death in churches and chapels across the U.K.
Folks here mostly don't mail Christmas cards but rather deliver them personally, something that's very nice. Often this is done with locals at the carol service I attended this evening. This year I _made_ my Christmas cards and I really enjoyed the creativity of that.
When I arrived the Anns (there were 3 in the chapel, at least) asked me what I was going to sing. I was leaning toward "Away In A Manger" (American words and tune) but then learned that I was to sing right after the children's first number -- and THEY were singing Away In A Manger. So I switched to "Silent Night" not knowing that, too, would be sung later by the congregation -- but with different words!
Of course many of the songs sung at chapel have lyrics that the folks around here can very seriously relate to -- "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night" is ALWAYS in the carol service, for example. Go figure. Hmmm....nearly every man in the chapel tonight is a shepherd! Albeit they use tractors, 4wds and quad bikes to herd sheep (along with the more traditional border collies!), still, they sing what they know! Plenty of mangers in these parts, too, and loads of silent nights (except during lambing time in March and April).
I look forward to the carol service every year and this year was a wonderful one. It was great to hear the kids do what they did with such gusto. It was wonderful to hear a "singing" Welsh preacher. And it was best of all to gather together as a community for an hour on one of the longest nights of the winter and sing and listen and enjoy each other's company.
I hope I can attend the carol service at this chapel for many more years to come.