Each year at the end of the Fall semester, I always enjoy having my college music students play Christmas carols.
I find that you are never to old or to young to enjoy this music and the students really appreciate the break from all the pressures of their final exams. A couple of years ago, however, I had a student who had never been to Church or any type of Christmas service who told me he had never heard “Away in the Manger” …. I was shocked and grieved at the thought of not knowing this simple and yet profound carol. While most of us would say, “this is not our children!”…I wonder…
And so, I have become ever more convinced of our need for the Christmas Eve service.
Therefore, this blog will be my 7 tried and true tips for producing a successful Christmas Eve service. I have invited my good friend and colleague Ida Smith to join me with her thoughts this week. Ida has been successfully producing Christmas Eve services within the Evangelical Lutheran tradition for over 50 years. When asked why she finds this work such a blessing she replied:
“I believe that worship should involve as many people as possible. They always say, ‘Liturgy is the work of the people.’ I believe it! There are frequently hidden musical resources within your congregation and I enjoy finding the young instrumentalist, the treble soloist, or the farmer who loves to sing.” and I whole heartedly amen these words…
#1. Get as many people involved as possible, the more people you have invested in the program, the more people you will have filling the seats. If you keep this in mind throughout the process, you will find that your Christmas service or program, whenever you decide to schedule it, will fill up to over flowing and be the best attended service you have all year. These services are not about perfection and often the most unpolished performance can shine with the greatest heart.
Ida’s thought here is: “include any child who is in the public school music program, or those who takes private music lessons. Adults who have played in the past are often interested in worshipping with their music. Don’t forget to see if there are any guitarists in your midst Find these people in early fall, and invite them to be part of the Christmas worship.”
#2. It is never too early or too late to start your preparations for your Christmas service. I highly recommend however, that you begin thinking and planning in September. In fact, I find that my true Advent season is actually when the temps are toping 100s in July. That being said, the important thing is that you begin, and when you do, keep in mind that you can never have too much rehearsal. There will always be several lost weeks due to unforeseen weather, sickness and just the normal “conflicts of interests” competing for your groups time.
Ida says: “BE IN REHEARSAL MODE BY NOVEMBER FIRST!”
#3. Plan a “Lessons and Carols” type service. These are often the most meaningful and best types of services that can accommodate any size fellowship. (more about this next week) for now Ida advises:
“I find the most accessible Christmas Eve programs to be Services of Lessons and Carols. This kind of service can use very simple, but lovely carols. Small congregations would have difficulty in preparing a cantata, but can very nicely do a carol service.”
You will find Lessons and Carols 101 here. The nice thing about this kind of a service is that it connects the old testament passages with the birth narratives you find in the Gospels and you can easily mix traditional carols with more contemporary praise music. Variety is the key to appealing to the widest audience and keeping your program from lagging. Your goal is to have something for everyone on your program.
#4. Plan for the photo opportunity:) Kids love dress up and nothing brings in the surrounding neighborhood like the chance to see their children dressed in costume on the stage. This can be as simple as a processional culminating around the nativity scene. Dressing the children as angels, little sheep or children around the world are all themes that project a beautiful image along with message and one that is memorable.
#5. Make a printed program. Again a crowd pleaser b/c, everyone loves to see their names on a program. These are the mementoes that people save and you can add the scriptures as a take home for later reference. This is a little extra trouble but the pay off is huge and well worth the effort. List everyone who was involved, from the performers to the dressmakers and cookie bakers. This then will save you from having to remember who to thank under the pressure of the night:)
#6. Have a living Nativity. This time honored tradition, began in the Middle Ages by St. Francis of Assisi, is one that never grows old. Look for a young couple within your congregation that may still be struggling to meet everyone and put them center stage for this part of the evening. They will never forget their special moment and the congregation will be universally blessed by their participation as a family.
Ida remembers last year: “We have recently added a limited live nativity, to be enjoyed as the congregation leaves. Our angel choir was joined by a few be-winged instrumentalists, as they sang for the Baby Jesus. Many pictures of Mary and the sweet infant were taken, and the donkey was petted by all. Christmas became warmer and quite wonderful, as we included even more people in the worship celebration.
#7. Don’t forget the cookies! What would any event be with out the opportunity to linger around a rich assortment of Christmas treats. Again this is your chance to enlist the help of those who are more afraid of the spotlight but still would like to be a part of the production. Consider the possibility of providing some kind of goodie bag for each child to find, with their name written on it, under the tree.
These are just a few ideas that I have learned over the years provide for a memorable and time honored occasion.
My friend Stefanie Cox says: “Christmas Eve services are the highlight of our year. We love the festive music, the candles, the food, the fellowship. Reliving the nativity, with the children playing the parts is magical.” (if you look close you can see Stefanie playing violin in the center above.)
Enjoy and Peace be with you!