Tis the season to be envious – An Irishman’s Diary about Protestant Christmas

‘A vast arsenal of hymns’

Tippi, a Dachshund cross, is held by her owner during the annual Peata dog carol service in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last week. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Tippi, a Dachshund cross, is held by her owner during the annual Peata dog carol service in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last week. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA


Christmas is the worst time, always. Most of the year I can cope quite well with not being a Protestant. But every December, around now, I start to feel that as a lapsed Catholic, I’m missing out on something by not being a lapsed Anglican, or Presbyterian, or even a lapsed member of one of those little low-church sects you find in the Drumlin Bible Belt.

It’s partly the hymns, of which Protestants famously have the best. It’s also partly the notion that winter suits the Protestant outlook better – that their northern European souls embrace it in a way Catholics, with their more Mediterranean orientation, can’t.

No doubt this is fanciful. But consider, by way of evidence, that loveliest of English Christmas carols – voted the all-time favourite in an international poll of choristers some years ago – In the Bleak Mid-Winter.

I know the conditions described in Christina Rossetti’s opening stanza (“In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan/Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”) are merely the scene-setter for the nativity, which in later verses will lift temperatures.

And yet, in the meantime, the song lingers almost lovingly on the big freeze – “Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow-ow on snow” – as if mesmerised by its beauty.

Rossetti herself seems to have been of wintry disposition, suffering periods of depression and presenting a cold front to a succession of men who proposed marriage. Despite her Italian surname, she was a devout Anglican. And at least one of her suitors was turned down because of his Catholicism.

As for her poem’s musical accompaniment, most Irish people will know it only in Gustav Holst’s original setting.

But if you hear the hymn sung in an Anglican Cathedral, it’s at least as likely to be a much different version, by Harold Darke (even the surname is appropriate), who made it both more complex and more austere, as if the original tune was too catchy to be Protestant. That, by the way, is the one that topped the choristers’ poll.

My suspicions about the vast arsenal of hymns Protestants have at their disposal were confirmed once, some years ago, when I had to entertain a visiting American couple over Christmas.

I wasn’t sure of their religious affiliation, if any, although they were from the midwest and had lived for years in Lutheran Minnesota, where for reasons both meteorological and emotional, the locals are known as “God’s Frozen People”.

In any case, I was worried they might find Yuletide Dublin underwhelming, what with the mild weather and all. So, desperate to impress, I decided to bring them to the Christmas Eve “Festival of the Nine Carols” in the ancient surrounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral, an event I myself had never attended.

Of course, you don’t just turn up at the door for this. It’s ticket-only and always packed out, confirming Protestantism’s seasonal allure (I’m told that overcrowding is less of a problem during most of the rest of the year).

Still, I managed to get tickets. And when the day came, never mind the Americans, I was eagerly looking forward to hearing the cathedral resound to the choral glories of Bleak Mid-Winter and O Holy Night and some of those other magnificent Christmas hymns that might make the hairs of even Richard Dawkins’s neck stand on end.

But in the event, there was no O Holy Night, or any hymn I could recognise among the nine. In fact, as if to rub it in, there was one with a familiar title – Hark the Herald Angels Sing, I think. And I was gearing up to sing along (not out loud, of course – I’m a Catholic). But that too turned out to be a completely different version from the one I knew.

Hymns aside, my notion that Protestants have a competitive edge at this time of year probably also has something to do with the fact that so many of the trappings of Christmas as we know it were introduced here (via Germany) from Victorian England.

And although it’s a whole other column, I also can’t help suspecting that in Protestant Christmas, the food is better too. Certainly, where I grew up, it was an article of faith that the local Church of Ireland women were all gifted with culinary skills that Catholics could only dream about.

Their summer fêtes and cake sales were legendary. But they were presumed to reserve their best for the period from “Stir-up Sunday”, the start of Advent, onwards. To this day, whenever I hear the term “figgy pudding”, whatever that is, I still can’t help feeling deprived.