Dec 15, 2006

Music at the Monastery: Christmas Eve

Online Edition – December 2006 – January 2007
Vol. XII, No. 9

Music at the Monastery: Christmas Eve

by Lucy Carroll

A Polish carol begins, “In midnight stillness, Christ the Lord was born.” Christmas at our monastery is still held at the traditional midnight hour, but begins a full hour earlier with a concert at 11 p.m. As folks enter the chapel, the organ, choir, and chimes present a program of Advent and Christmas selections. Hearkening to my own heritage, I always include the traditional Polish kolenda “Lullaby Jesus” (“Lullajze Jezuniu”) sung by the women of the choir partly in Polish and partly in English.

At 11:30 p.m. the church is darkened, and the cantor enters the sanctuary flanked by two altar servers bearing candles. In that dark and quiet place, the cantor sings the chant for the Christmas Proclamation. All are quiet in the darkened chapel as the solemn sentences ring out.

This is followed by the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours, introduced with the favorite carol “What Child is This”, with most of the lights on.

The Liturgy of the Hours may immediately precede or follow the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: rubrics for such use can be found in the book itself. At the monastery, the Office of Readings includes beautiful Advent readings and another hymn, “Joy to the World”. The choir, people, and nuns all chant the psalms of the office to simple English tones. The Office of Readings pre-empts the opening penitential rite, so there is no Kyrie.

Then the Mass itself begins with the Gloria, the lights come up full as the priest intones the chant Gloria VIII from the Mass of the Angels, and the people all join in.

The Offertory hymn is always all four verses of “Adeste Fideles”, sung in Latin. Each year the congregation grows stronger on the successive verses. The Sanctus and Agnus used at the monastery are from the Christmas Carol Mass by J. Carroll Andrews, setting the English texts of the Mass to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel” respectively.

As the host is elevated for the consecration, we are past the midnight hour, and the city outside is dark, sometimes punctuated with sirens, sometimes serenely quiet. The communion hymn is always “Silent Night”, preceded by a choir selection. In past years this has consisted of such pieces as “Glory to God” by Pergolesi and the perennial favorite by Adolphe Adam, “O Holy Night”, sung in harmony. This past year the choir sang an original quasi-polyphonic work by their director, “To Christ the Prince of Peace”.

The concluding hymn at the monastery is always “Good Christian Men Rejoice”. No inclusive language here; everyone understand that the vagaries of our language are such that all of us are included in “men”. (A friend insists to me that in his parish, when the politically correct version of “Good Christian Friends” or “Good Christian Folk” rears its head, he loudly sings “Good Christian Men”, to the sidelong frowns of those around him.)

Mass concludes with a Renaissance tradition: the rocking of the cradle. The monastery commissioned a beautiful and unique wooden cradle, painted in the style of Renaissance pieces, which can be gently rocked. Inside is a beautiful figure of the Child Jesus, its glass eyes reflecting the candlelight, looking very life-like. At the top of the cradle is a relic, from Rome, of the original crib. As the choir and congregation sing a rocking carol, “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine”, each congregant comes to the sanctuary to “rock” the Christ Child. It is 1:30 a.m. by the time all have taken a turn and the altar servers return the cradle to the sacristy.

The cradle will then remain at the side altar until the Feast of the Purification, February 2, the original ending date for the Christmas season.

Very few parishes still hold Christmas Eve Mass at the traditional midnight hour. This is often for quite valid practical reasons. However, the quiet and stillness — and darkness — of the very end of the day create a special atmosphere that simply cannot be duplicated in the afternoon. Indeed, some who participate at the monastery first participate in their own parishes as servers, readers, or even musicians, and then come to the monastery for the special midnight service. Also, the lateness of the hour and the darkness of the surroundings create a quiet and meditative background. The aura of reverence and of awe helps dispel the outside commercialism of the holiday.

The chapel is always exquisitely decorated by the nuns. Greenery is everywhere, and votive candles in red glass holders adorn the side walls. A beautiful tapestry with the Nativity scene is suspended from the choir loft. The monastery is not a parish church, it is a private chapel, the home of our Carmelite nuns. Those of us who are privileged to share Christmas with them are very blessed indeed.


Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages.