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Festive secrets of Foolow - the Peak District village's unique carol singing custom

PUBLISHED: 12:02 08 December 2016 | UPDATED: 12:02 08 December 2016

Foolow Carollers at Home Farm, run by Emily and Joe Redfearn, Christmas Day 1957 Photo Village Carols Archive

Foolow Carollers at Home Farm, run by Emily and Joe Redfearn, Christmas Day 1957 Photo Village Carols Archive

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While many of us may be falling asleep after a hearty Christmas Day lunch, one small Derbyshire village will be springing to life in song. Peter Naldrett discovers the festive secrets of Foolow

Foolow's carol singers , December 2007  Photo Village Carols ArchiveFoolow's carol singers , December 2007 Photo Village Carols Archive

Christmas Day! A time for getting the family together, eating too much and playing silly games that have been passed down generations.

At least, that’s the case in our home. Each household has their own traditions at Christmastime, of course, but in the Derbyshire village of Foolow they have their own very special, unique way of celebrating.

In the afternoon and evening of 25th December, residents in Foolow turn off their televisions, blow out their candles and take to the streets. And as the sky darkens, the hardy locals visit houses to sing carols in a yuletide ritual that has attracted the attention of the media and academics alike. Of course, the idea of singing praises on the streets around Christmas is nothing new – but what makes it so special at Foolow is that many of these beautiful carols cannot be heard anywhere else. And those you thought you recognised are transformed by tunes you’ve never come across.

Detailed studies into the well-established tradition of singing local carols in north Derbyshire and South Yorkshire revealed several carols were only heard in Foolow. Some of Foolow’s festive treats had only managed to make it to neighbouring villages, while a few versions of ‘While Shepherds’ were sung to a tune that was unique to Foolow.

The carols sung on Christmas Day in that picturesque village have been recorded and analysed since 1985 by Ian Russell, Emeritus Professor of Aberdeen University. Professor Russell, who completed a doctorate into the singing traditions of west Sheffield in the 1970s, has been studying the curious tradition of ‘local carols’ ever since.

He’s even written a book about the event, and in On This Delightful Morn he said: ‘To undertake a fieldwork project at Foolow required careful planning and negotiation, as well as a certain amount of determination, for the carols are only sung on one occasion, Christmas Day.

‘I first heard about Foolow carols in the late 1970s from my good friend Brian Woodall, with whom I was recording the Castleton carols.

‘I was impressed by what I found on Christmas Day 1985. It is true that there were only about a dozen singers and the men were very much in the minority, but the welcome I received and the friendliness of the group were quite exceptional.’

We don’t exactly know when the tradition of singing carols around Foolow village was actually started. Such festive music making experienced a significant growth in the last half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. But many of these popular carols were banished from places of worship in the name of Reform. Since then, local traditions of singing the carols out in the open and in pubs has flourished. In Foolow on Christmas Day the lunchtime gathering is expected to be around 30 strong, representing a full house, with up to a dozen heading out at night.

Some years, though, the tradition has seemed threatened. There have been Christmas Days in Foolow when less than five people have headed out and pubs, too, have seen the number of singers fluctuating. But a resurgence of interest led by media coverage, the internet and the promotion by folk singers like Kate Rusby have renewed the passion for local carols.

Professor Russell draws attention to the repertoire of carols at Foolow, pointing out that it is not as wide as the variety sung at the famous Royal Hotel at Dungworth, South Yorkshire. He told me: ‘The strength of the Dungworth sing before 1975 was primarily dependent on support from Stannington and Worrall musicians and singers. The Dungworth repertoire has grown significantly through this support. By contrast, Foolow has enjoyed little outside support until recently. It’s repertoire is larger than anywhere else in Derbyshire that I know of. Thus it is in some ways more remarkable.’

Frazer Jarvis helps run the Village Carols websites, an invaluable source of local ‘sings’ in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire that is checked each year by those wanting to experience them. He told me: ‘I think Foolow is special partly because there are so many carols which aren’t sung anywhere else, and it seems very important to preserve them. With a comparatively small group, it seems even more critical to keep this extraordinary collection of carols alive, and it’s as if everyone singing there feels this responsibility. And there are some great carols in the repertoire.

‘Castleton and Eyam also have lovely traditions, but perhaps it’s because they are larger places and much better known, that more outsiders seem to come. I still find it extraordinary that Foolow and Eyam both have such a rich tradition, and have hardly mixed at all.

‘Although Foolow does attract some outsiders like me, it becomes clear through the discussions between the carols that a substantial proportion of the singers are from the village, and remember the singing from their youth, and have been involved in the tradition for all of their lives. So it still feels like a local village tradition, and I feel like I’m helping it survive, not just enjoying a good sing.’

In truth, it may be too much to expect you to abandon families, traditions and games on Christmas Day in favour of belting out a carol in Foolow. But there are many more traditional ‘sings’ that take place in North Derbyshire, both in pubs and community centres. Check out dates at www.villagecarols.org.uk and www.localcarols.org.uk

• A collection of 21 Foolow carols is included in The Derbyshire Book of Village Carols, edited by Ian Russell. Copies are available from Village Carols. P O Box 2099, Sheffield S35 0XU

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