Advent Verse Songs of Praise


Advent Verse

Pam Rhodes introduces poetry and music for Advent, with guests Sheila Hancock and Sir Derek Jacobi, plus seasonal hymns from St Alban's Church in Bristol and the Military Wives.


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Today marks the start of a very special season - Advent,

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when we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.

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Some of our greatest poets have been so moved by this season

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that they've written inspirational words,

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often given even more depth and beauty

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when perfectly partnered with music

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and so we celebrate Christ's coming in a feast of music and poetry.

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Singing us towards Christmas are three wonderful choirs,

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including The Military Wives,

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as well as our congregation at St Alban's Church in Bristol.

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Verse spanning the centuries is read for us by Sheila Hancock

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and Sir Derek Jacobi.

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MALE CHOIR SINGS IN LATIN

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As far back as the eighth century,

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Latin antiphons were sung in church

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on the seven days leading up to Christmas.

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It's those ancient words on which our first hymn is based,

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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

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Some of the most familiar and poetic Advent verses

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come from the book of Isaiah.

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The prophet was speaking to a people who had long suffered,

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but in the birth of the Messiah,

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they were promised their burdens would be lifted.

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The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.

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They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death,

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upon them hath the light shined.

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For unto us a child is born.

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Unto us a son is given.

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And the government shall be upon His shoulder

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and His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor,

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the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father,

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the Prince of Peace.

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Back in the 17th century,

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Robert Herrick was not just a clergyman in Devon,

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but a lyrical poet who wrote a carol

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that reflected the countryside he knew so well.

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He didn't picture Jesus coming in chilly December, though,

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but in the warm sunlight of May, as a darling Prince of flowers.

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The darling of the world has come

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and fit it is, we find the room to welcome Him.

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The nobler part of all the house here

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is the heart which we will give Him

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and bequeath this holly and this ivy wreath

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to do Him honour who's our King and Lord of all this revelling.

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# What sweeter music can we bring

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# Than a carol for to sing

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# The birth of this Our heavenly King

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# Awake the voice Awake the string!

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# Dark and dull night fly hence away

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# And give the honour to this day

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# That sees December turned to May

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# That sees December turned to May

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# Why does the chilling winter's morn

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# Smile like a field beset with corn?

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# Or smell like a meadow newly shorn

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# Thus on the sudden, come and see

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# The cause, why things thus fragrant be

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# 'Tis He is born Whose quickening birth

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# Gives life and lustre Public mirth

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# To heaven and the under-earth

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# We see Him come and know Him ours

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# Who, with His sunshine and His showers

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# Turns all the patient ground to flowers

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# Turns all the patient ground to flowers

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# The darling of the world is come

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# And fit it is we find a room

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# To welcome Him, to welcome Him

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# The nobler part of all the house here

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# Is the heart

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# Which we will give Him and bequeath

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# This holly and this ivy wreath

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# To do Him honour, who's our King

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# And Lord of all this revelling

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# What sweeter music can we bring

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# Than a carol for to sing?

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# The birth of this The heavenly King

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# The birth of this

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# Our heavenly King. #

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When Sheila Hancock's husband, the acclaimed actor John Thaw,

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died ten years ago, in her grief, she rediscovered her love of verse.

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I had a great upsurge in liking poetry after John died.

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A lot of people sent me poems.

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I'm a Quaker and the word is quite important to us.

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Because of the silence, you know, we worship in silence

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and people should not talk in meetings,

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unless they are really moved to talk.

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Which is where Quaker thing comes from.

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You've got to really have to be able to voice it.

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Poetry is not vital to my life, but it would be much poorer without it,

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let's put it that way.

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I mean, I wouldn't pretend I read poetry every day,

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but I find poetry crystallises things.

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It-It...the very nature of it is to...make things in a nutshell,

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as it were.

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And sometimes a line of poetry can sort of pierce your consciousness

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in the way that a long talk with somebody or a conversation doesn't.

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I can sympathise with anybody who says,

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"Well, I can't get my head round poetry."

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But I think the thing is, with a bit of effort, you can.

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I mean, I've done Shakespeare's sonnets with some kids

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on the White City estate, which is an estate in London.

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And to begin with, they were all going, "Urgh, don't understand it."

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The ended up absolutely loving it

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and totally getting the feeling of the words and the rhythm.

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Look upon myself and curse my fate

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Wishing me like to one more rich in hope.

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It's our heritage and our children have a right to it.

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And it shouldn't be simplified.

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How dare we be so patronising as to think

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the children cannot understand...

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..slightly complex language. Of course they can.

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Can you imagine the run-up to Christmas without a tree?

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Well, popular modern-day poet Wendy Cope

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was prompted to put pen to paper

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when an 8-year-old girl told her that if you don't

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have a real tree, you don't bring Christmas life into the house.

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And for Wendy, that life is Christ himself.

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Bring in a tree, a young Norwegian spruce

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Bring hyacinths that rooted in the cold

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Bring winter jasmine as its buds unfold

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Bring the Christmas life into this house

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Bring red and green and gold, bring things that shine

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Bring candlesticks and music, food and wine

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Bring in your memories of Christmas past

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Bring in your tears for all that you have lost

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Bring in the shepherd boy, the ox and ass

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Bring in the stillness of an icy night

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Bring in the birth, of hope and love and light

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Bring the Christmas life into this house.

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Christina Rossetti was born in 1830

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into a remarkable family of poets and artists.

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So let's hear now from The Military Wives as they sing one of her

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most atmospheric carols, which ends with a personal challenge to us all.

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# In the bleak mid-winter

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# Frosty wind made moan

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# Earth stood hard as iron

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# Water like a stone

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# Snow had fallen, snow on snow

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# Snow on snow

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# In the bleak mid-winter

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# Long ago

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# Our God, heav'n cannot hold Him

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# Nor Earth sustain

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# Heav'n and Earth shall flee away

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# When He comes to reign

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# In the bleak mid-winter

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# A stable-place sufficed

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# The Lord God Almighty

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# Jesus Christ

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# What can I give Him

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# Poor as I am?

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# If I were a shepherd

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# I would bring a lamb

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# If I were a Wise Man

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# I would do my part

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# Yet what I can I give Him

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# Give my heart

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# Give my heart

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# My heart. #

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John Betjeman was unquestionably one of the best-loved poets

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of the 20th century.

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Well-known on television with his teddy bear-like demeanour.

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In spite of being a high-church Anglican,

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he sometimes wrestled with his faith,

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but whatever his personal doubts, his verse is clear and accessible.

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One of his most memorable poems is simply called Christmas,

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and in the last three verses, with gentle irony,

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he wonders why we mark the great miracle of Christ's coming

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with all the "fripperies" of Christmas as we celebrate it today.

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And is it true

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This most tremendous tale of all

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Seen in a stained-glass window's hue

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A baby in an ox's stall?

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The Maker of the stars and sea

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Become a child on Earth for me?

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And is it true?

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For if it is

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No loving fingers tying strings

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Around those tissued fripperies

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The sweet and silly Christmas things

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Bath salts and inexpensive scent

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And hideous tie so kindly meant

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No love that in a family dwells

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No carolling in frosty air

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Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

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Can with this single truth compare

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That God was man in Palestine

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And lives today in bread and wine.

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I think Christmas is probably THE time when we should...

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..lock the doors and put the fire on and engage with poetry.

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For me, it isn't a time to go out, spending money and consuming.

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It's a time to withdraw into the home to be with

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the people that we love most.

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And yes, to reflect as the year ends.

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In 2007, just a couple of years before Carol Ann Duffy

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was appointed Poet Laureate,

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she wrote the words to a collection called The Manchester Carols.

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Well, they're called The Manchester Carols

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because they were written in Manchester.

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I live in Manchester.

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The composer, Sasha Johnson Manning, lives in Manchester.

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It was really an attempt to look at the Christmas story

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from the human aspect.

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When I was taught the story as a child, Joseph was very important.

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I always remember as a child thinking how kind he was.

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And I liked that fact that he had a job. He was a carpenter.

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He made things with his hands.

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My own father was a fitter,

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so I could relate to the human aspect of Joseph as Jesus' father.

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I could imagine him in his workshop making things.

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So when I wrote The Trees, I wanted to have that physical sense

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of Joseph knowing the names of the trees,

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knowing the qualities of the wood, what he could make from them.

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And in the journey of that carol, he makes a cradle for the new baby.

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# Joseph stood by the apple tree

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# Said these hands work at carpentry

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# Tell me what gifts you have for me

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# What gifts you have for me

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# The tree's reply was wind in leaves

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# For all your joys and all your griefs

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# I'll give you fruit for Mary

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# I'll give you fruit for Mary

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# Joseph stood by the cherry tree

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# Said these hands work at carpentry

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# Tell me what gifts you have for me

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# What gifts you have for me

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# The tree's reply was wind in leaves

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# For all your joys and all your griefs

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# I'll give you wood for a cradle

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# I'll give you wood for a cradle

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# Joseph stood by the darkening trees

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# Said these hands made for carpentry

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# Are full of gifts from every tree

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# Full of gifts from every tree

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# The trees' replies were wind in leaves

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# For all your joys and all your griefs

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# Now Joseph go to Mary

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# Now Joseph go to Mary

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# Now Joseph go to Mary. #

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Ursula Fanthorpe, who only died a few years ago, combined teaching

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English at Cheltenham Ladies' College with writing poetry.

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She often reflected her quiet Quaker faith in the poems

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she included in Christmas cards, and in this one, BC:AD,

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she conjures up both the ordinariness and the wonder of Christ's birth.

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This was the moment when Before

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Turned into After and the future's

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Uninvented timekeepers presented arms

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This was the moment when nothing happened

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Only dull peace sprawled boringly over the Earth

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This was the moment when even energetic Romans

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Could find nothing better to do

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Than counting heads in remote provinces

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And this was the moment

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When a few farm workers and three members of an obscure Persian sect

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Walked haphazard by starlight straight

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Into the Kingdom Of Heaven.

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Next week, Aled celebrates the second Sunday in Advent

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with hymns from Holy Cross in Greenford.

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A church built in the middle of the last war.

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Local people share their memories of Christmas in wartime.

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And there's a performance from Jonathan and Charlotte.

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