In the wake of the article ‘A vicar’s week’ which I wrote some months ago, I got a lot of pleas to do another, so here is the Christmas letter. In view of the GE, this is offered as an antidote!
‘And what are you doing for Christmas?’, comes the annual question to the Rector, at least once every year. I often think of replying ‘I’m spending two weeks in the Bahamas drinking rum punch on a beach with a dusky maiden!’ But I don’t. I blink and smile as the realisation hits them. ‘Oh yes … of course!’
Christmas is planned months in advance. The cycle of services never changes much, but if you think Christmas preparation starts in the shops in August then it does so in church too; and the services nowadays last almost all December.
Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Our Lord but it’s also about tradition. Tradition is generally defined as ‘what we’ve always done’. This usually means decades but can be as low as three years. A fellow priest of mine told the probably apocryphal story of the first year he was at a large parish church in Southampton as a curate and as the choir procession went up into the choir stalls each person did a little jump at the same point. This puzzled him. He was told ‘there used to be two heating pipes across the aisle there and the choir had to step over them. The pipes had long gone, but it was ‘the tradition’!
For the Clergy, Christmas begins early December with Christingle and schools. Christingles are best made by other people. They were invented in 1747 by a German bishop (bless him!) to make children feel happy about Jesus. For those making a hundred or more Christingles, they educate you to realise that God did not create oranges to stand up, nor sweets and nuts to be pierced by cocktail sticks. This discovery comes just after the realisation that sticking a red ribbon around the circumference of the orange was never meant to be either. As to the lit candles … well!
Saying that, the money raised in coinage for the Children’s Society is vital, even if much of it falls on the floor when the cardboard collecting boxes are full. At the Service I try not to include the ‘Christingle Song’ which an acquaintance of mine misguidedly wrote years ago to the tune Sing Hosanna – it includes the word Christingle far too many times. By the time Christmas School services come mid-December I am amazed that even though exhausted by a long-term, teachers summon up ingenuity to recreate variants of the Christmas story. St Luke never mentioned lobsters nor ostriches in his Gospel but their appearance at one nativity scene was innovative. All God’s creatures are there, so to speak!
There is always some variant of Lessons and Carols a few days before Christmas week also. This is a service perfected by Kings College Cambridge setting a bar for all village choirs to aim at. It’s said that the more you practise the better you get. In the past two years All Saints has made a jolly good job of it, and so do come this year. You’ll enjoy it. Spare a thought for clergy in multi-parish benefices though. Each parish will put on this service with a 9 or 7 carols variant. I had four parishes some years ago and 30 lessons and carols to get through. The last with a silver (brass) band just a few feet away! I mimed throughout.
Christmas Eve is always a magical night. Most churches have a nativity scene to put together with old plaster cast figurines that have pieces that can be over two feet tall that scream ‘touch me and I’ll break’. We then give them to children to place in the crib! Usually sheep figure highly in this and get put in the way of the Baby.
Midnight service presents the challenge of a crafted sermon that can speak to people who rarely attend. It takes a while to write and the longer it goes on for the less time there was in preparation! Expecting people to be still awake after 1am is hopeful to say the least. Many retired clergy forget this when preaching during Interregna! I don’t.
Most clergy have their Christmas in the days after. My abiding memory is completing Christmas Services, taking sandwiches and going down to listen to the 3.30pm service at Winchester Cathedral when my younger son sang in the Choir. There is nothing more properly traditional than Winchester Cathedral at Christmas and the Choir. Christmas Day was then on Boxing Day for us.
I wonder what your traditions are? Have a festive and meaningful Christmas celebrating Christ’s birth, and may I be the first to wish you a Happy New Year that exceed all that did or didn’t happen in 2019!
Yours in Christ,