Our “High Church” Christmas Eve

December 23, 2003 | 12 comments
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The first Christmas my wife and I were together (1993), Melissa wanted to attend a Roman Catholic Christmas midnight mass, a longstanding wish of hers. I’d never attended a midnight mass either, and so we did: late on the evening of December 24th, we and some friends attended a lovely mass at St. Francis of Assisi parish, in Provo, where I found singing the Christmas hymns (during communion and the recessional) to be more fulfilling than I think I ever had previously. By the next morning, Melissa and I decided that we needed to attend a church service every Christmas Eve. That we have done every year since, bringing our children along as they’ve been born and have grown. We’ve attended midnight masses since then, but have mostly opted for Protestant services earlier in the evening: Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Presbyterian. We’ve come to realize that many Protestant denominations have more-or-less formalized certain Christmas Eve services, with the lighting of candles (advent or otherwise) and regular lessons, carols, anthems, prayers and blessings. We don’t take communion (our covenant is elsewhere, after all), but we contribute and participate to the fullest (or, at least, as much as our kids allow us: some years have been better than others). Generally speaking, we’ve yet to attend one Christmas Eve service which hasn’t been rewarding, and yet to hear one sermon that wasn’t deeply truthful and good, though I do think we’ve liked Methodist services best overall.

When we’ve explained our family Christmas Eve tradition to other Mormons, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find a fair amount of support and sympathy; I’ve heard versions of the “I wish our ward/our stake/the church did/would do something at Christmastime” complaint more times than I can count. (There’s the Christmas Devotional broadcast, of course, but except for those lucky enough to be able attend and to walk around Temple Square in person, it’s not a particularly immediate experience.) But we’ve also received more than our fair share of criticial comments. These usually breakdown into two categories: what are you doing worshipping at another church, and why do you feel a need to go to church on Christmas Eve?

My answers to those comments are tied together: Melissa and I feel a need to worship on Christmas Eve, and our church, unfortunately, does not provide that opportunity. What do we mean by worship? Not simply remembering the “reason for the season”; any reading of Luke 2 before hitting the sack could accomplish that. No, we mean gathering together in His name. And not just as family or extended family either: Melissa and I both grew up in families where our folks and siblings would gather in living rooms on Christmas Eve, to eat and sing songs and swap stories and watch the little kids put on a nativity play and so forth. That’s good, but it’s not good enough: what is needed is something congregational, something that puts you before God and beside your fellow man.

The simple answer as to why the Mormon church does not do so at Christmastime is that we are, at least at present, in practice if not in theology, one of those typically American, disestablished, free Protestant churches; we have our meetings on Sunday, we keep the commandments on our own, and that’s enough for us. The idea of being tied to a calendar of holy days, of being implicated in a tradition of not just memory but performance, is as foreign to American Mormonism as it is to any evangelical Christian church you could name. The week of Christmas you will, of course, have some sort of Christmas-themed service on Sunday, with the usual hymns and maybe a program too (it would be pointless not to), but to actually meet to praise God on the day (or the night) itself–that’s too “high church” for us. (Of the Protestant services I mentioned above, obviously not all of them take the traditional Christian calendar and the idea of special services on holy days with equal seriousness–but all recognize that on Christmas Eve at least, church doors should be opened, and something should be offered to the supplicant.)

Yes, we are to remember our baptismal covenants always, and once a week on Sunday is as good and as sufficient a day to renew it as any other. But still: some days are special; some days give us a greater sense of God than others. And if you acknowledge that specialness, it seems to me an occasion for worship. Everyone’s Christmas will be different, I realize, and not everyone shares my affection for being attached to holidays. But if you feel in need of something to ground your seasonal celebrations, I couldn’t recommend more strongly reconnecting (if only for one night) with the high church tradition, and regularly attending Christmas Eve services. It’ll do you good. (For some far less spiritual Christmas recommendations of mine, see here and here and here.)

I’ve wondered: what if I’m a bishop or branch president someday, what will I do then? Part of me thinks I’d, of course, continue going to Christmas Eve services with my family; no need to change doing something we’ve enjoyed so much. But part of me wonders if I’d have the guts to do what I think we Mormons ought to do: spend less time in meetings, and more time in praise. Maybe I’d just quietly pass the word that I’d be in chapel on Christmas Eve; I’d arrange for some music, perhaps, and prepare a short sermon, or ask someone else to do the same. I wonder if it would work? And I wonder if any other ward somewhere might be doing this already? If so, good for them.

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12 Responses to Our “High Church” Christmas Eve

  1. Gordon on December 23, 2003 at 1:30 am

    Russell, Count me down as sympathetic. I went to Austria on my mission, and Austrians are 95% (give or take) Catholic. While serving as a missionary, I attended several Catholic services and found them to be very uplifting. Recently, we were entertaining a faculty candidate who asked to attend a Catholic service for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I readily agreed to be his host. Unfortunately, he postponed his visit by one week, and when he arrived, he was quite surprised to learn that I am a Momon. It lead to a nice conversation about religion, in which he taught me that “Immaculate Conception” refers to Mary’s birth, not Jesus’. I guess the well educated among us already knew that, but I think this is a common misconception. (Sorry, it was just there for the taking!)

  2. Renee on December 23, 2003 at 11:27 am

    I know of a ward in Appleton, Wisconsin which started having Christmas Eve devotionals on a couple of years ago. The person who told me about it said it was great for a number of reasons. One being what was already said, a desire to celebrate formally this holiday. Another being that it gave members an opportunity to share their faith with their non-member families in a non-threatening environment which they could all relate to.

    We invite our parents to the devotional broadcast and they always enjoy it. On Christmas Eve, we will be joining my in-laws at their Presbyterian midnight service. They have a GREAT handbell choir.

  3. Nate on December 23, 2003 at 11:31 am

    Russell: One Christmas in Boston my wife and I attended Christmas Eve service at Trinity Church in Boston, one of the neo-Romanesque masterpieces of American architecture. It was a fabulous service. There was wonderful music and the sermon was well-prepared, uplifting, and impeccably delivered. However, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider at such an event. Thus, while I loved the music, pagent, liturgy, setting etc., I can’t say that it filled any communal part of my soul. I did not feel strongly connected to those around me or to the setting in which I was worshiping. Rather, I felt like a foreigner in a strang and beutiful land. I would love to have some kind of Mormon christmas event, and growing up in Salt Lake City, I always enjoyed going to the First Presidency devotional in the Tabranacle.

    Historically, it is my understanding that Mormons had no Christmas celebrations at all until Nauvoo. Christmas was not a Puritan holiday, and various forms of post-Puritanism formed the background of most American Latter-day Saints. However, as the British Mission began sending converts to Nauvoo, the demographic of the Church changed. The English Saints came mostly out of groups like the United Bretheren that had broken with Methodism, which of course had broken with the High Church C. of E. Still, they had a Christmas tradition, and that tradition got carried into Nauvoo society. To my knowledge, neither Joseph or any of the other leaders had any anti-High Church reaction to this development. It would be interesting to imagine what would have happened to Mormonism had the bulk of English converts come from from Anglicanism rather than extreme Methodism.

  4. Matt Evans on December 23, 2003 at 11:55 am

    The instructor of my Institute ‘Religions of the World’ course said a Protestant minister told him, speaking of Mormons, “I’ve never seen a people who know so much about their religion. Nor a people who knew so little about anyone else’s.” I’ve seen evidence of both parts of that statement enough to think he’s right on both counts.

    Mormons would be much better missionaries (full-time, ward and member) if they were more familiar with other churches. Most missionaries have a very poor sense of what people think about, what they know about God and the scriptures. This ignorance can hurt their ability to resolve concerns (they don’t know the meaning of various terms, or how the Mormon definitions are sometimes particular), but mostly it cripples their ability to relate to the people they’ve been called to teach.

    Shortly after my mission I decided to begin remedying the problem. My family was on the 2:00 p.m. block schedule, so I planned to take my younger brothers and sisters, once a month, to the morning services of a different church. Even though we only ended up doing it twice, it gave them and me a better feel for what kinds of sermons the people hear, what their churches look like, and what they care about. Most importantly, because it can feel in Utah as though everyone who is non-Mormon is non-religious, seeing non-Mormons worshipping and singing praises to God helped my teenage brothers and sisters begin to appreciate non-Mormon religiosity.

    If I ever teach Young Men in a Utah ward, I plan to take them to different churches to help prepare them for their missions. I’ll do the same thing with my own kids.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on December 23, 2003 at 12:56 pm

    Renee, thanks for telling us about the Appleton ward; I think that’s wonderful. I hope many more wards and branches are quietly doing things like that.

    Nate, I’m sure your history is basically correct. Christmas was celebrated in 19th-century America in the Southern and some Mid-Atlantic states, but the legacy of Puritanism informed a lot of the northern “Freewill” Baptist and Congregationalist groups that Joseph Smith was familiar with, as well as inspiring many of the various “restorationist” churches (Christian Church, the “Campbellites,” etc.) which arose during his lifetime. That influence extended (as did Mormonism) into the Midwest, and remained strong for many years. Some parts of our country weren’t firmly “converted” to Christmas until after the Civil War, when the influx of immigrants and the new Victorian economy of the cities finally overwhelmed neo-Puritan opposition. I didn’t know most of the English Saints came out of the United Brethren movement, but that makes sense.

    I’m sorry you didn’t feel much connection to the Trinity Church service. One of the highlights of my life was attending Christmas Eve services in old Christ Church in Alexandria, VA (George Washington’s parish; they still have his pew marked out), several years ago. Maybe I’m just a Protestant at heart.

  6. Kristine on December 23, 2003 at 1:53 pm

    There’s no maybe for me; I’m sure that I’m Anglican at heart. I love not just Christmas Eve services, but the whole Christian calendar. Christmas means so much more if you’ve marked the Sundays of Advent with the pared-down worship and quiet emphasis on waiting. Likewise, the pomp of Easter is much more satisfying after the liturgical deprivation of Lent–plainsong psalms, no organ, etc., the reading of the passion on Palm Sunday, Good Friday service, etc. Bob Rees wrote a good essay in Sunstone last year titled something like “Why Mormons should celebrate Holy Week.”

    When I go to Trinity Church’s Christmas eve service (I got to sing with the choir one year when half their alto section was down with flu–amazing!!) or to Lessons and Carols at Harvard, I feel like I’ve come home. Maybe it matters that I didn’t grow up in Utah and so never had any association with the Christmas Devotional or being in entirely Mormon crowds at Christmas. Or maybe some people have the misfortune of being born with high-church souls into low-church Mormon families. Not complaining; I’ll take true doctrine over form any day (well, OK, any day but Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday!)

  7. Russell Arben Fox on December 23, 2003 at 2:15 pm

    Kristine, I’m right with you when it comes to Holy Week. One of the best things about having attended Catholic University for graduate school was I learned what Good Friday really means in terms of our worship of Christ: we’re pretty good at talking about His resurrection, but not quite as good at understanding His death. And the former requires the latter.

  8. ronin on December 23, 2003 at 5:21 pm

    Tonight at 11.30pm, I am going to attend the Christmas Mass at St Thomas, our local Catholic Church. As a convert, who converted as an adult, I wish that we would have some kind of Christmas Service at our Wards, complete with music and a massed Choir. I havenever been to Utah, so am unfamiliar with what it feels to actually attend a Christmas devotional at the Tabernacle, instead of watching it on a small TV at Church!!

  9. clark goble on December 23, 2003 at 6:33 pm

    To go along with Russell’s comments there was an excellent interview along those lines on Radio West this morning. Great history of Christmas.

    It isn’t up on their archive site yet but is being rebroadcast tonight at 7:00.

    http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/kuer/news/news.newsmain?action=section&SECTION_ID=184

    One of the interesting comments was how Santa Claus was really a symbol for workers and how close economic changes in America were with Christmas. For instance it was to get people to stop partying and be more productive. A lot of
    interesting facts.

    The biggest point was how, in America, Christmas became much more of a personal home celebration whereas at one time it was much more of a public and civic holiday. More akin to New Years.

  10. Jim on December 24, 2003 at 3:53 am

    As I understand it, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that anyone but the Catholics (and probably high church Anglicans) had Christmas eve services, and the development of those services in Protestant Churches was a response to the fact that their congregations were doing as Russell and many of us are doing, namely going to someone else’s service on Christmas eve. I also have heard that Christmas was not a particularly religious holiday for anyone until well into the 19th century. As Clark says, it was more like New Years.

  11. Renee on December 31, 2003 at 12:45 am

    A follow-up comment on our experience on Christmas Eve. We went with my in-laws to their Presbyterian church. I was looking forward to their handbell choir and wasn’t disappointed. I was dismayed however, that their associate pastor felt a prayer offered on behalf of the congregation was a good place for her to express her disdain for the war. “And Lord, please bless the soldiers who are have to be overseas BECAUSE OUR GOVERNMENT PUT THEM THERE.” Yes, she did emphasize those words. Pulease! I was disgusted. I wondered at first if I was being too hard on her because the few women in clergy I have met are there because they have an ax to grind. But no, I really think she was out of line. Especially because earlier in the service the head pastor said it was so great that people of varying political and theological beliefs could get together on Christmas Eve.

    I promptly emailed both pastors on the 26th praising the handbell choir and stating that since the congregation knew how the soldiers got overseas and God knows as well, the motivation to say that must have been to vocalize dissent and it was not appropriate in a prayer offered on behalf of all of us.

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