Byline: Laura Davis
FORGET Cliff Richard's Mistletoe and Wine, or the many X-Factor offerings that have topped the festive charts in recent years, for many people the official soundtrack for Christmas features the sweet voices of choirboys.
With faces like angels and vocal chords straight from a heavenly choir, they sing like seraphim while managing to resist the urge to fidget with their polyester ruffs.
Were it not for their modern haircuts, dressed in their gowns these boys would be indistinguishable from the generations before them.
They are the latest in a long heritage, dubbed "England's oldest youth movement" by Sir Sydney Nicholson, founder of the School of English Church Music. Yet, while youth culture thrives, churches and cathedrals across the country are struggling to fill their choir stalls.
This is not because boys do not want to sing, claims Dr Martin Ashley, reader in education at Edge Hill University. Quite the contrary - they want to, but feel too intimidated by their peers in what Dr Ashley describes as "homophobic bullying".
"Actually, boys do like singing but it's not cool for them to like it," he insists. "The sadness is that there are boys who would secretly like to do it but don't because they can't stand up to the 'not cool' culture.
"This is a very gendered issue because if I went into a primary school and said 'I'm starting a choir' I'd get a hundred little girls that want to be in it and very few boys.
"It's up to adults to stand up against homophobic bullying because that's basically what it comes down to."
Dr Ashley has coined the term "melancholic boys" for the large numbers of eight to 14-year-olds who have become silenced from the joys of singing. His research forms the basis for one of the most comprehensive reviews into boys' involvement in singing ever undertaken and involved interviews with pupils at schools across the country, including the North West, as well as choirboys from five cathedrals.
One of the main obstacles preventing boys from joining choirs is the rise of celebrity culture, he claims.
"Culture has become much more individualised and what we've seen over the last 30 years is the decline of singing as a social activity that's worth doing in itself and replaced with singing as something that will make you a celebrity," he explains.
"The effect celebrity culture has had on boys particularly is making them think they can't do it because they don't have the celebrity qualities to go on XFactor and be a star.."
A contributing factor to singing's non-macho image is the way in which boys and young men are marketed by the record industry. As mums and elderly women are the ones with the spending power, it is to them that music moguls try to appeal.
One example is X-Factor runner-up, Liverpool's Ray Quinn, who released his album earlier this year just in time for Mother's Day.
Dr Ashley believes boys who have been approached by a record company are torn between making the most of the opportunity, along with the financial benefits that are likely to follow, and holding their head up high among their peers.
"When you look at boys who work for labels like Sony, they are marketed to appeal to at women in their late 40s and 50s. I've got a lovely quote from one of those I spoke to who said 'that kind of stuff is for mums who want to trade in their teenage sons'," he says.
"If you are a 13-year-old boy, there is no way you want to be marketed as somebody who's cute and appeals to grannies. …