A Ramsbury Christmas Carol

Ramsbury Carols – Shepherds, Silver Bells and.. Civil Wars?

One of the special treats of the year in Ramsbury is the annual “Carols Round the Tree”, sung in The Square on the last Monday before Christmas.  A more informal event than Holy Cross’ “Carols by Candlelight” (held the day before), it consists of Ramsbury Silver Band accompanying as many or as few residents as choose to join in, and has traditionally been organised by the village’s Methodist community.

Indeed, the Silver Band was originally founded by four members of the Methodist chapel, Messrs Hobbs, Hunter, Chamberlain and Franklin (each of whom still has descendants living in Ramsbury today.)

Among several established traditions, the first verse of Away in A Manger is always left for any children present to sing, before the adults join in with the remaining verses.  And then there’s the unique “Ramsbury” tune to While Shepherds Watched, composed by Mr Hobbs over 100 years ago – in past years, when the Silver Band led carol singing around the village and outlying houses over the course of the whole last two weeks of Advent, “Ramsbury” was only ever sung as the last song, on the last night, under the last streetlight at the end of the High Street (the junction with Mill Lane).  These days, it’s still kept to the end and is eagerly looked forward to by all who know and love it, being traditionally followed with three resounding cheers for Ramsbury itself.

Among the well-known tunes and usual crowd-pleasers, there are always a few less common carols to watch out for – a version of Hark the Herald Angels with the last verse in a different order to what you might expect (though who’s to say which is the right one?) and the lovely Sweet Bells, which usually relies on sufficient people being able to cope with the harmonies from memory (or someone remembering to bring the special hymn sheets to hand out!) and is not one you’ll often hear out and about.

But perhaps “I Heard the Bells” is the most curious.  A song many people may be unfamiliar with, it’s based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (of “Hiawatha” fame).  At first hearing, it seems to be a simple evocation of peace on earth, goodwill to men – so far, so festive.  We usually only sing the first 3 verses, ending on a high note both figuratively and literally.  But if we were to carry on, we’d see that verses 4-6 take a very gloomy turn, remembering the “accursed cannons” and the hate and despair of the American Civil War in which Longfellow’s son fought and was wounded.  The final verse, however, returns to a theme of hope as the bells continue to peal that “Love is not dead, nor does it sleep” and that Right shall prevail with peace on earth, goodwill to men.  It’s a great thing to be able to sing that with friends and neighbours in the heart of our village.