Can a non-believer write Christmas carols?

The poet Carol Ann Duffy, a confirmed atheist, has done just that. Paul Vallely heard them performed for the first time
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The Independent Culture

Can you have an atheist Christmas carol? Ask Carol Ann Duffy. The woman whose work has received every major poetry prize was brought up a Catholic but at 15 gave up belief in God. And yet she has just produced 16 poems that have been turned into the most remarkable suite of new carols to be published in decades.

And we are not talking about the rising of the sun, running of the deer, holly and ivy as pagan male and female fertility symbols kinds of carols. No, we are talking about a retelling of what is unmistakably the story of the Nativity a fact that was underscored at the new cycle's premiere at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester last week by a linking narrative between the carols. But it is a Nativity intentionally stripped of the supernatural and focusing on the human.

"I think the story is wonderful," says Duffy, who has in the past worked on poems remodelling fairy stories. "There's a lot we can take from it on a human level even if we don't take the divine element." Thus Gabriel, who announces to Mary that she is with child, is not an angel. "I don't believe in angels, much though I'd like to, so I've called Gabriel a golden youth [a reference to Renaissance art, where the angel is frequently rendered as a beautiful blond boy] who calls Mary 'by her human name' and tells her: 'Heaven on earth resides in you/ you bear the Christmas child, and he/ will live and die within your arms/ sorrow and joy reside in you/ you bear the Christmas child.'"

"I wanted to get a sense of the joy that any woman would have when told that she's having a child. When we have children we're producing complicated human lives that will have joy and sorrow. We don't just have babies that will have magical happy-ever-after lives. And this particular baby, Jesus, as we know, contains much sorrow."

In the gospels, Joseph is also told of the baby by an angel, but Duffy, who describes herself as a "benign atheist", thought one golden youth was enough. "So I decided that Joseph would receive his news, because he was a carpenter, from the trees he works with." The cherry tree offers him wood for a cradle, the maple wood for toys, the blackthorn thorns for a crowing and the elder wood for a cross. "To bring the sorrow and darkness of Jesus's future into the carol I've had the trees anticipate the Crucifixion."

The suspension of disbelief is poetic rather than religious. "In a multi-faith society, of all the great religions and people who are agnostics and atheists I think that what both Sasha [Johnson Manning, the composer] and I wanted with our Manchester Carols was to write a suite that anyone could happily listen to." There is, therefore, plenty of sparkling snow and singing merrily in the verses, recalling the imagery of the traditional carols that were sung when Duffy was born on 23 December 1955. "The night I was born the nurses stood at the end of the ward singing Christmas carols, my mother told me a fairy-tale image I've had most of my life."

But there is more to it than seasonal sentimentality. "Myth is very important for how we understand our human experience and the Christmas story is full of resonances for every century and particularly our own." While writing Duffy was struck by the parallels between the story and the television news. "Joseph and Mary were told to flee into Egypt. We see that all the time on our TVs people leaving their countries because they're oppressed or they're going to be murdered." They go to foreign lands to rely on the kindness of strangers, or suffer exploitation by them. The experience of returning home after the troubles is contemporary too, which is why she links Bosnia, Iraq and New Orleans to Nazareth. "Wherever we call home, it's the same for everyone."

Because Duffy is the wordsmith it is easy to draw on what she has said to explain this new enterprise. And yet the poet is not the star here. What makes the Manchester Carols so stunning is the music of Johnson Manning, who has a real gift for melody. Her carols stand proudly in the tradition of Warlock, Howells, Darke, Hadley and Rutter. Using just a small woodwind group with two recorders, a double string quartet, harp, bells and piano she coaxes a wide range of colour across the 16 songs, which are, by turns, tender and plangent, touching and joyful, happy and vigorous, and gloriously unsentimental.

A massed choir from Manchester schools brought the innocence and joy that only children can give to Christmas. But disciplined by professional voices from the BBC Daily Service singers, and two outstanding soloists in the lyrical tenor Joshua Ellicott and the composer as soprano it gave witness to the power of human connectivity. It may not have been supernatural but it was magical a work of real substance which will become a feature on the Christmas landscape.

'A Miracle'

Yes, it would be a miracle indeed

If everyone who needs somewhere to sleep

could find a bed;

The tired, the lost, the homeless dispossessed,

Somewhere to rest...

Oh Bethlehem, at last we would agree

That it would be a miracle indeed.

A miracle.

Yes, it would be a miracle for sure

If everyone who fears the men with guns

Knew no more war;

the shot, the bombed, the injured innocents

were whole once more.

Oh Bethlehem, our hearts would not ignore

that it would be a miracle for sure.

A miracle.

Carol Ann Duffy