Reflections on Church Christmases
It occurred to me at one point this Advent that I’ve never known what Christmas is like without the church being a vital part of it. We hear about the over-commercialization of the holiday season, and that we’ve lost the “true meaning” of Christmas, but I’m over here quietly saying, “I haven’t!”
It’s well-documented in various places that I am a lifelong churchgoer. I was the one who didn’t participate in extracurricular activities that would take place on Sunday mornings. I was the one who was too timid to talk about his deep-rooted faith in public school. I was the one who starred in pageants, sang in choirs, and eventually served in church offices, and led worship services. All of these faces were of utmost importance whenever Christmas would roll around.
My earliest memories of church at Christmas are at East Natick United Methodist Church, a long-dead parish in the metro Boston area. So often our early memories are a confused hybrid of actual memories (as seen out the front of our face) and “memories” created by looking directly at ourselves through photos and home videos. [I sometimes wonder whether the greatest green-screen actors of our day eventually come to have false memories of actually fighting monsters, and running with dinosaurs, since the actual filming event took only hours, but the third-person moments last a lifetime.] On more than one occasion, I brought in my Casio PT-80 and charmed the old folks with my carols. There’s a great photo somewhere of me in a bathrobe and and head dress serenading the crowd as Joseph. I also am told that I sobbed as a dove in one Christmas pageant. Another included the Sesame Street song “True Blue Miracle” and yet another included songs from John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, the songbook for which disappeared leaving my mother quite disheartened.
Our pageant would be on a Sunday afternoon in mid-December, and Santa would come through at the reception. He was portrayed by my dad or uncle, but for some reason I wasn’t aware of that fact.
Christmas Eve was deep. The choir would sing, my dad would sing “O Holy Night”. And one of my favorite parts of life took shape at that time, that of entering a darkened church in the evening. To this day, regardless of the sanctuary, it fills me with wonder and awe. As a church musician, I find myself getting to enter many a darkened sanctuary.
As I grew older, pageants fell out of practice at that aging parish, and I joined the adult choir. We’d perform the same, predictable anthems each year, and I was given leeway to sing as many solos as I wished, performing most of the Messiah bass solos during my college years there. We took up a partnership with the nearby First UMC of Framingham and performed annual Christmas concerts at each church. There were a few years in which, prior to the Christmas Eve service, I performed a short recital of Christmas music on piano, organ, voice, with duets and small ensembles from amongst my family. Those were nice times.
When that church fell apart and I moved on to grad school at Westminster Choir College, I began to experience in a much grander fashion, with the annual Christmas at Westminster in the Princeton University Chapel. Trumpets, drums, and a massive choir with organ. Now that was Christmas done right!
I began to work as a church administrator in neighboring Plainsboro, at the First Presbyterian Church, and over time the music director learned of my musical background. Soon, my wife and I were performing with their choir at their annual concerts. I don’t really remember much of the repertoire, aside from “Bethlehem Procession” by Pepper Choplin, which I have recently adopted with my own choir.
As my admin work shifted back to Princeton at Nassau Presbyterian Church, I found myself loving the work associated with corralling 15 choirs as they prepared for their happy Yuletide. I don’t believe I ever performed with Nassau at Christmas, but this was one of the most vital places to work during Advent, I even got out of jury duty once because of its importance.
When I moved to Massachusetts and did not have a church home of my own, I would attend Christmas Eve services with my parents at the United Parish of Upton. I did that for a few years, before I finally got my own church home.
For years, I had wanted to have my own church choir, and I finally was given the opportunity in 2009. Ever since, Advent has been the most rewarding time I could imagine. We celebrate with special services centering on the music I suggest to our pastor, and she does a marvelous job of creating services around it. We have done Mendlessohn’s Christus, selections from John Rutter’s Magnificat, Simeone’s Sing We Now of Christmas, Martin’s Nowell Nowell Emmanuel, and services around collected anthems on topics such as Christmas around the world, macaronic Christmas, and this year the songs of Mary. This coming week, I will go full circle, presenting music from that same Muppets album, some 35 years later, with our bluegrass band On the Fence.
Christmas could not exist for me without church. I honestly don’t know why people who aren’t churchgoers celebrate it, but I’m not an evangelical type of person, so I remind myself that that’s not any of my business. I suppose it has something to do with Thomas Nast and Coca-Cola. Angry-looking people on street corners with rhyming signs imploring us to remember the “reason for the season” may be on to something, but in my eyes, they’re really only adding more stress to their own situation. When the secular aspects of December overwhelm me, I shift focus to a baby in the quiet, still world, and I know the rest doesn’t really matter too much.
Give me a good church service or concert, a hymn sheet lit by flickering candlelight, followed by some laughs with good friends and family. I’ll be all set with that.