Christmas Isn't Christmas Without... Lessons and Carols.

If you want to assume the identity of a corduroy-blazer-wearing-thoughtful-critical-intellectual celebrating the season, one of the best ways to do so is by going to a Lessons and Carols.

My main experience with it has been through Vassar College, which organizes the service every year, calling upon the talents of their students, faculty, and community. Although I haven't any formal training in singing, my voice, at the very least, doesn't shatter glass. So for a few years, I joined the ranks of the choir for Lessons and Carols. The soprano section was where I parked myself because I couldn't actually read the music and they tend to get the melody; probably the mezzo-soprano or the altos would have been a better choice. In my first year, we sang the Coventry Carol, which has to be the most disturbing and depressing song about Christ ever composed. It is also my mother's favorite. Because my college had a long winter break, spanning Thanksgiving to just after New Year's, I was able to keep up with it right until the moment I was caught as a fraud. That particular winter I had a really nasty chest cold, but I kept going to rehearsal, trying to keep quiet in the back. But you know how it is with singing: when the spirit moves you, the volume also gets away from you. A student in front of me turned around and asked if I wanted to move closer to the front. "So you can hear the notes better," she said. I stuck it out to the performance, but my choir days were effectively squashed.

People, no matter what they're celebrating, love pomp and circumstance, with a healthy dash of ritual and ceremony. Lessons and Carols provides all of that. We, the choir, would process into the darkened chapel, lit only by the candles in our hands and then the rafters would ring as a solemn chant of "Veni Veni Emanuel" emitted from the glowing figures. When we finished the last note would vibrate into silence. The Deacon would let us stand still in that quiet for half a minute and then begin with his proclamation.

Vassar Chapel is especially well suited to a winter's night of songs of solemn awe and readings. It's built in a neo-romanesque style, and at night the shadows are deep enough to make the magna mysterium very literal.

My awkward high school teenager self always had a bit of a thing for the medieval ages and the terrifying mystery of the Dark Ages. So songs like "O Come, Emanuel," or "Adam Lay Ybounden" absolutely thrilled me; the cold air in the dark winter night seemed thinner, and these strong voices ringing true, brought the alien stars that much closer.

Lessons and Carols started in the 1880's in Cornwall, England by the Bishop of Truro Cathedral.
Some people like to believe that it was the Bishop's intent to keep his parishioners out of the pubs on Christmas Eve, but I also appreciate that it was to round up all those well-meaning carolers who go from door to door and put them in a contained environment, bless their hearts. The most televised production of Lessons and Carols takes place in King's College of Oxford Univeristy.

The program usually progresses through the Biblical story of God's promise to save mankind. It starts by reminding us how humanity got in this pickle in the first place.

 We then move on to how the purity and worthiness of Mary and Gabriel's Annunciation to her,

Then, Happy Days! Christ is born and we celebrate the Nativity!

There is now a new light in the world to warm us in these cold and dark days.

Note that this activity originated within the Church Of England, known to the United States as the Episcopal Church and described by Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard as more of a "hobby" than a religion. So, like most Episcopalian services, the fact that an inn keeper wouldn't make room for a pregnant woman about to give birth is heavily mentioned; we're reminded that Christ was not actually well loved or welcomed by the men of his world. That Mary had an immaculate conception is not really mentioned. Episcopalians often seem very embarrassed to be reading the same book as the Catholics, or other more zealous Christians, and thus like to focus more on the socio-political teachings of the Gospel, than its faith-based miracles.

My personal favorite song at Vassar's Lessons and Carols is "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning." It's a Gospel Blues song of remarkable power, telling us, "hold on, keep ready. Things might be bad now, but something's coming to help."

In the Holiday season it is remarkably easy to become fixated on presents, money, calories, and all sorts of other things that place a lot of stress and guilt on a body. Lessons and Carols is a quiet moment to pause and reflect on why we celebrate at this time of year. With a nice choir, and candles, a well spoken minister, and an organ, you can briefly shut off the Macy's and Target ad's in your brain, and find some peace.
I highly recommend a google search for "Lesson's and Carols near me."


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