IN the town where I was born - somewhere, shall we say, on the Darlington to Bishop Auckland railway line - Christmas wasn't so much traditional as cast in Elgin marble.

Carols were forbidden in St John's church until late on Christmas Eve, transgressors liable to six months gutter cleaning, the first Nowell making a trepidant debut at about twenty five to midnight.

We often wondered where the choir was allowed to practise for the Big Day. In the graveyard, probably (or vicarage garage, if wet.)

Thus was it slightly disconcerting to attend a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Wednesday, just three days after Advent Sunday and with 19 of the Baptist's cry remaining.

If synchronisation is a problem, however, acclimatisation is a still greater difficulty. Some of us remember when Christmas was cold, when we ran down Church Street after midnight service playing knocky-nine-doors in the snow, when a white Christmas wasn't just another safe bet for the bookmakers.

On Wednesday evening it was around 50 degrees outside All Saints church in Blackwell, Darlington and approximately twice as warm within, several among the congregation in danger of doing a Grenadier guardsman and forming a passing out parade.

Whatever happened to the bleak mid-winter and the frosty wind made moan? What became of the cold winter night that was so deep and the snow that had fallen, snow on snow?

Somehow it just didn't seem right.

Much more familiar was the Bethlehem Carol Sheet, from which we all seem to have been singing since infancy.

All Saints had the 46th edition, this year's is the 47th - and this year with an extra carol, taking the total to 27.

"We've a core of 15 and rotate some of the others. It depends how much space there is," said Diane Piggott of Bible Lands Trading, the publishers, the following day.

The first edition was sold from the boss's garage, this one ran to 300,000. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen has been dropped - the gentlemen needing a break, presumably - Christians Awake made a triumphant return. The carol sheet is among Bible Lands Trading's biggest earners - "we're still working on paper that disintegrates on Twelfth Night," said Diane.

Wednesday's occasion was for what might broadly be termed Darlington's service before self clubs - Inner Wheelers and Ladies Circlers, Lions and Lionesses, Rotarians and Rotoractors, Round Tablers, 41 Clubbers - old squares, it might be said at Round Table - and Soroptimists, who always sound cheerful, whether they feel it or not.

Nine organisations, nine lessons and carols. One over the eight, as possibly they might have said elsewhere.

Awaiting arrivals, we stood at the back with John Dobson - All Saints' much admired Vicar - who on January 7 will be presented by the Bishop of Durham with his mandate as Darlington's new area dean.

Much admired he may be, but the title of area (formerly rural) dean is not necessarily an ecclesiastical plum. The mandate may be in the form of a severely truncated straw.

About 100 were present, many in chains though not - happily - of the sort dragged through eternity by poor Jacob Marley's ghost.

Basil Noble - eighty-odd, old friend, indomitable - wondered even before the service where the mulled wine might be warming; Charles Smith - tieless, leading Tory - remarked upon how much the church had changed since last he was in there.

It's YEARS, we thought, since All Saints was so splendidly made over.

"It's a nice evening for it," everyone said, but in truth it would have been a nice evening for a barbecue.

What, though, of Tom Peacock - rampant Lion, retired probation officer, former Northern League linesman - who'd not only re-started the inter-club service this year but issued the column's invitation?

Tom was out the back, it transpired, mulling over the wine and testing the mince pies. They were made by Ferryhill Comprehensive School, whose domestic science pupils may award themselves gold stars.

John Dobson welcomed us, announced that all the carols would be from the sheet except for the ones that weren't and that the offertory - "the thing you've all been asking about" - would accompany the penultimate song.

It was for Lunchstop, the organisation that offers Sunday dinner to those in Darlington who would otherwise be hungry, or lonely, or both.

The service, long established, features bible readings from the Fall in Genesis chronologically through to the glorious and best unmodified first chapter of John's gospel, how the Word became flesh. Carols began with Once in Royal David's City, ended - of course - with O Come All Ye Faithful, the inevitable number one on everyone's sheet.

Though we gave it the most tremendous what fettle, the last verse - Yea Lord we greet thee, born this happy morning - was properly omitted.

As they used to reckon in dear old Shildon, some things should wait until Christmas.

l Bible Lands Trading is at PO Box 50, High Wycombe, Bucks HP 15 7QY.