Why sheep will sing along to X Factor's Xmas hit

LET'S suppose you founded a religion. Let's say it was about 2,000 years ago. Let's imagine that over the centuries you enshrined your most sacred beliefs in song.

Once a year, at the centrepiece of your devotional calendar, you would have a special set of these songs - you would call them carols - that could be sung in schools, by choirs, by groups of believers in high streets, hospices and old folks homes across the land.

They would reaffirm people's faith, encapsulate the wonder of your religion, and spread the message of peace, love and goodwill to all men.

Then let's suppose you turned on the radio one frosty December day and heard a familiar melody. It was the tune to 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing', a hymn by Charles Wesley that proclaimed the birth of your messiah and raised the prospect of God and sinners being reconciled in a "mystic union". These were sentiments worthy of sober contemplation and respect. Except this tune wasn't being delivered in a tone of veneration. It was being performed by sheep.

It was part of a medley comprising 'Jingle Bells' (admittedly not the most sacrosanct of numbers), 'Good King Wenceslas' and 'While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night'.

Once you would have heard sentiments such as "Ye who now will bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing" and "All glory be to God on high/And to the earth be peace". Now you have an abattoir's worth of synthesised ewes underpinned by an enervating drumbeat.

Worse, the whole irritating exercise was a marketing scam by the Cumbria Tourist Board, although it was never clear how the population's enthusiasm for the self-styled Baarmy Sheep would translate into increased visitors to the Lake District.

That the exercise was a musical crime as great as the Crazy Frog, which it was designed to usurp, was self-evident. That it was also a sacrilegious slap in the face to the Christian faith was little remarked upon.

The commercialisation of Christmas had become so institutionalised that no one noticed when veneration turned to abomination. Now it was OK to use one religion's holy scriptural messages to encourage tourists to spend cash in Coniston teashops.

I write not as a Christian myself, but you've got to admire the religion's tolerance in these matters. Think of the outcry if you sold turkeys with Koranic chanting or the latest all-walking all-talking Barbie doll with Yiddish lamentations. The devout would be justifiably offended.

In this context, the commercial lust of the X Factor team seems almost innocent. The final of the souped-up talent contest is on Saturday, December 17, which gives the winner four days to get a single into the shops in time to make a claim on the Christmas number-one spot, assuming G4 or Westlife don't get there first.

You can bet the X Factor hopefuls have already recorded their respective songs - just in case - and you can bet that in future years we will have no fond memories of the one that makes it. The popularity of the TV programme will propel them into the class of novelty Christmas hits such as 'Can We Fix It?' by Bob the Builder, 'Mr Blobby' by Mr Blobby and 'There's No One Quite Like Grandma' by the St Winifred's School Choir.

It's not the commercialism in itself - what, other than chart success, were Slade thinking of when they came up with 'Merry Xmas Everybody'? - it's the cynical awareness of the pop-market process. What's depressing is the programme makers' assumption of predictability, their knowing awareness of the slavish behaviour of their audience.

No doubt the winner would like their song to be listed alongside 'Bohemian Rhapsody', 'Hello Goodbye' and 'Moon River' - none of which were predictable Christmas number ones - but there's as much chance of that happening as finding a born-again sheep on Lake Windermere.

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