Christmas Before and After: Celebrating the Journey
You know how it goes at Christmas time, especially with young children at home — the excitement builds and builds as the cards and decorations first appear in the stores in September; "Jingle Bell Rock" comes on the radio around Thanksgiving; decorations appear in downtown stores and malls; the first big snowfall arrives; you put out extra candles in the house and wreaths on the doors; you buy and decorate the tree, and attend concerts at school and church; school lets out for the long vacation; there are parties to attend, and cookies to bake; you visit Santa in the store; lights go up on the outside of the house; there is gift buying and wrapping, carol singing in church on Sunday morning, and lit candles in Christmas Eve worship. Then, in a frenzied instant, the presents are ripped open, the wrappings crumpled up in the trash can, you sweep up the dropped needles, and it's all over for another year. With a little bit of cleaning up and putting away, we move on to the new year and our normal routine.
But the days between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day can be so much richer and more meaningful if we can find ways to mark the time, to celebrate the themes, to explore as individuals, families, and churches what it means for God to be born in human flesh. Advent consists of the four Sundays before Christmas Day, and there are nearly two more weeks after Christmas Day until Epiphany (the twelve days of Christmas). Without minimizing the importance of Christmas Eve or morning, how can we make more significant the journey along the way and following?
Hanging of the Greens
The Hanging of the Greens service is a way of transforming the normal church sanctuary by dressing it up with symbols and decorations of the winter and Advent seasons — banners, greens, flowers, holly and ivy, and candles, within the context of congregational worship. Through the integration of liturgy, hymns, scripture, prayer, choirs, and narrative, the rich symbolism and liturgical significance of each item is explained as it is brought in and placed in the sanctuary. The United Methodist Book of Worship (no. 258) contains an entire service with Scripture, music selections, liturgy, and narrative. An alternative service, designed especially to include children, youth, and adults as leaders, is on the Discipleship Ministries worship website. Others may be found here.
Use of Story and Song at Home
Church is not the only place to observe Advent. You can start a tradition in your own family by setting aside one evening during each of the four weeks during Advent, maybe Sunday evening, to gather the family together and read a story of the season. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is ideal for its length and the fact that it is already divided into four sections. Have family members take turns reading, including the children. If you have created your own Advent wreath at home, you can conclude with lighting the next candle and singing a song or carol. A variation would be to join with three other families, with each family hosting the entire group one night for dinner or dessert, story, and song.
In worship, change the tune of the Doxologyeach week during Advent to one of the suggested tunes below. Practice ahead with the choir and be sure to print the words in the bulletin since people tend to forget the words when a different tune is used. If you prefer, just use "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" throughout Advent and the others for Christmas Eve and the Sundays after Christmas.
- 1st Sunday: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (may add refrain)
- 2nd Sunday: "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" (1st half only)
- 3rd Sunday: "The First Noel" (may add refrain)
- 4th Sunday: "What Child Is This" (may add refrain)
Choir Mission Project
Engage your choir (or choirs) in outreach and mission to your own community. Is there a soup kitchen where you can volunteer? Meals on Wheels? Contact the Ronald McDonald House and offer to cook, bring in, and serve an evening meal for the temporary residents, then conclude with group caroling. Do the same for a college campus ministry before the long Christmas holiday vacation begins. Nursing homes have no shortage of church choirs coming through their buildings caroling, but you might consider having the choir sign a large greeting card wishing the residents a merry Christmas, and include your pledge to make an appointment during the following year to come and sing for them.
An Advent Service of Lessons and Carols
Many are familiar with the Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols (The Book of Worship, no. 284, A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols). Consider an adaptation of the Christmas service for Advent, substituting prayers, responses, hymns, and scriptures more appropriate to the themes of Advent. Such a service, focusing on the message of the prophets rather than on the story of the Nativity, is also available in The Book of Worship, no. 263.
The O Antiphons ("The Great O's")
In some churches and faiths, the week before Christmas marks the final preparations. The people gather each evening for Vespers with prayer and singing emphasizing the Advent theme of the hope, expectation, and longing for the coming of the Savior. Some families prefer to worship privately in their own homes. The "O Antiphons," dating from the seventh or eighth century, are seven poems or verses, usually chanted or sung, before and after the reading or singing of the Magnificat, or Canticle of Mary (Luke 2:42-55, UM Hymnal, no. 199). Historically, a different antiphon was used each day of the week leading to Christmas Eve. All seven of "The Great O's" may be found in The UM Hymnal, no. 211, along with the familiar Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," which uses the antiphons in its verses.
Sunday school classes or families with children may enjoy making an "O Antiphon House," similar to an Advent calendar but with seven windows. Behind each window is a different symbol for each of the antiphons, and an eighth window for the Nativity scene. Each day during worship or devotions, a different window is opened to uncover the symbol. The symbols of the antiphons, in the order presented in The UM Hymnal, are:
- O Emmanuel — tablets of stone
- O Wisdom — oil lamp, open book
- O Adonai — burning bush, stone tablets
- O Root of Jesse — vine or flowering plant (rose)
- O Key of David — key, broken chains
- O Dayspring — rising sun
- O King of the Gentles — crown, scepter
Visit this site for additional information, history, and suggestions.
Las Posadas,or Service of Shelter for the Holy Family, is a Latin American or Hispanic tradition especially common to Mexico. It is an eight-day celebration that takes place December 16-23, followed on Christmas Eve with a Christmas Eve Service of Las Posadas. Las Posadas anticipates Jesus' birth by remembering the nine months when Mary carried Jesus in her womb, and through an emphasis on the Advent themes of repentance and God's mercy.
Preparations for Las Posadas include selecting eight church members' homes for a nightly party that includes narrative, Scripture, responses, and singing, with pastries, desserts, chips and dips, hot chocolate, coffee, and other refreshments, followed by the breaking of a piñata by a child. The people assemble some distance from the home and walk together as in a pilgrimage, carrying candles and singing as they go. Mary (riding on a donkey if possible), Joseph, and children dressed as shepherds and magi lead the way to the house. The spoken portions include the arrival, asking for lodging, refusal of lodging, and a series of questions and answers from Scripture, and spoken parts for all. The group is finally admitted, there is a closing prayer and song, and the serving of refreshments. On Christmas Eve the service takes place at the church. Instructions, history, script, Scriptures, prayers, songs, etc., are in The Book of Worship, nos. 266 and 281.
Birthday Party for Jesus
On the Sunday following Christmas Day, often a Sunday of low attendance in some churches, gather the Sunday school classes together for one large Sunday school celebration — a birthday party for Jesus. Include singing of Christmas carols, sharing of personal stories and memories of Christmases past, an offering to benefit a local charity as well as canned goods for the Salvation Army, and, of course, a birthday cake and singing of "Happy Birthday." If your church is one that has held back from singing Christmas carols during Advent, this could be an opportunity to let the people choose their favorites.
Blue Christmas, or Longest Night Worship for Those Who Mourn
In every church and community there are persons who, for one reason or another, simply cannot enter into the unbridled joy of the Christmas season. Some must deal with the recent or expected death of a loved one, or even their own. Some are coping with the aftermath of divorce, job loss, sickness — many different unfortunate and tragic circumstances. Christmas parties and caroling are the last things some of these people want. The Blue Christmas or Longest Night service is an attempt to minister to the needs of such persons while still recognizing that part of the reason for Jesus' coming was to bring hope and comfort, to heal the sick, to seek the lost, to restore the broken and broken-hearted. Worship services, hymn and music selections, liturgies, and other suggestions may be foundhere.
The Watch Night, or Covenant Renewal Service, has been a part of Methodism since John Wesley first used it in 1755. Wesley found it meaningful and "a time of remarkable blessing." He made frequent use of it when visiting the early Methodist Societies. The Watch Night service is today most often held on New Year's Eve, sometimes concluding at midnight, or on New Year's Day. The remembrance of the old year, its accomplishments and its failures, plus the anticipation of a new year with its promise and hope, can lend a serious quality to the service. The people should be prepared for this service through some study and prayer, and brought to an appreciation of what it means to enter into a covenant. The service includes prayers, scripture, hymns, the Covenant Prayer (UM Hymnal, no. 607), and may also include Holy Communion. The entire service is included in The Book of Worship, no. 288. Also see"Watch Night/New Year's Eve Resources" by Daniel Benedict.
Watch Night services have long been an important part of African American worship. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all the slaves in the Confederate States, it was to become law on January 1, 1863. On December 31, 1862, the night before it was to become law, African Americans gathered together in their churches and homes all over the USA, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight. That first Watch Night came to be known as "Freedom's Eve." When midnight and the New Year arrived, they celebrated with prayers, shouts, singing, and great thanksgiving to God. Today, almost 150 years after that first "Freedom's Eve" Watch Night, African Americans continue to gather in worship, prayer, and thanksgiving. (See this site for more.)
Twelfth Night — Chalking the Door
Most people are familiar with the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." The title comes from the fact that there are twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany Day on January 6. In some countries it is customary to gather with friends for a Twelfth Night party to commemorate the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child on Epiphany. There are games, singing, food, and fellowship. There is also the custom of marking the doorway of the host home with chalk using the letters CMB and the year. CMB is thought to be the first initial of each of the names of the three Magi — Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar — although this comes from tradition and not scripture. They may also stand for "Christus Mansionem Benedicat," or "May Christ Bless This Dwelling." The chalking of the door is accompanied by a brief liturgy, prayer, spoken parts, and singing.
Thechalking ceremony(see "An Epiphany Blessing of Homes and Chalking the Door")may be appropriately used in many settings: a hospital or nursing home room, a college dorm, a workplace or office, a church building or classroom, as well as at home.
Following his Christmas Eve "conversion," it was said of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol that he certainly knew how to keep Christmas. And so it may be said of us and our churches, that we certainly know how to keep Christmas. But in doing so, are we also missing out on other interesting and meaningful celebrations before and after the big day? As with any trip, the journey can be made more significant and enjoyable with a few stops along the way.