When I was in England working towards my master’s degree in Prehistory I was assigned the task of interviewing a local person—any local person. The goal was to tie a local custom of the present to its birth in the past. It was an interesting idea but the assignment was so far outside my comfort zone I first thought it a joke. It wasn’t and it got worse. I had to choose my own subject. I was new in town, I’d met no one but the other students, and I am a wallflower. Where and how was I to find a subject?
Flukes are chances—or mischances—which can’t be explained without a lot of “whys” and “therefores” so I will simply say I found myself lunching in a nearby village pub one Sunday afternoon with my landlady. (She had refused to be my interviewee on the grounds she was herself a newcomer to the area—had lived there only 20 years or so—and still could not say why some folks did things this way or that.)
While we were enjoying our sandwiches a group of eight or ten men had been gathering along the back wall. The barman said they came here after church every Sunday for a snack and a wag while their wives went home to prepare the Sunday joint.
Even before the last man arrived, one started singing a Christmas carol and the others joined in. Turns out, most pubs in the area hosted just such a choir. From mid-November until Epiphany (January 6), the singers would visit a different pub to sing the local carols—many composed by members of the choir. A round-robin roster detailing which choir was visiting which pub was posted prominently weeks in advance of the season. The hosting pub imposed a cover-charge of a few pounds and all those funds went to charity. The amounts each choir had raised to date were posted alongside the choir’s names on the roster and, towards January the competition could get fierce as each choir tried to raise more money than did the regulars of a neighboring pub.
It was our luck, Judy’s and mine, to be lunching at the Stannington Pub during the first practice for the upcoming caroling season. We’d planned a visit to the azalea gardens but the rain continued to come down in buckets so we were content to sit, drink our shandies, and listen—for free!
When it looked like they were winding down we sent the publican over with a round of beers. I’m still not sure if we followed proper etiquette in tipping them though they seemed pleased enough. (And the cover-charges for the whole season wouldn’t have cost us nearly as much as that round did.) As they left for their Sunday dinners they all tipped their hats and wished us a good day—excepting the last one. The elderly tenor pulled out a chair, sat down across from me and said, “You’re from America. I’ve never been. I’m Yorkshire bred ‘n born.”