Tag Archive | Christmas music

Reflections on Christmas from a Church Organist

It’s over. The busiest time of the year for everyone, but especially for church organists, is over. As I look back over this holy season, what were the highlights for me?

  1. Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Celebrating Christmas together with our church family at Messiah Lutheran Church. I played the organ for the 10:00 service on Christmas Eve. This is the fifth year I’ve played for one of the Christmas Eve services. (I’m a half-time organist at Messiah.) The late service on Christmas Eve is my favorite. Even though the church is full, and there’s excitement in the air, it’s a peaceful time, a time to reflect on Jesus being born and what that means to us today.

  2. Celebrating Christmas together with the people of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church. I played at four services – a Norwegian Christmas Carol Sing earlier in the month, the 3:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service, the 9:00 a.m. Christmas Day service, and a special service of lessons and carols on the Sunday after Christmas. I’ve been playing at East half-time since September. This was my first Christmas with them. They provided as many opportunities for their members to sing Christmas carols as they possibly could. Music is a very big part of Christmas for this church. I liked that.
  3. Hosting a Christmas Carol Sing at Whispering Winds. This was especially meaningful because it was the last event at our retreat center before it went on hiatus. We sang for a couple hours. Then we ate Christmas cookies and talked for another hour. It was a fun evening for a great group of friends.
  4. Playing the piano for two Worship Services/Christmas Carol Sings for women in the County Jail. The women really enjoyed being able to choose what carols to sing, and they sang enthusiastically. But what was the most special to me about these services was the testimony time that came just before the singing. A common theme expressed by many of the women inmates was their thankfulness for being able to experience Christmas in jail – far away from all the commercialism of Christmas. They had time to think about the true meaning of Christ being born into the world. They felt closer to God. Some of them also saw this as an opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas with their children during the limited time they had for conversations with them.
  5. Accompanying Mim as she sings at home. Mim didn’t do as much singing this year as she usually does, partly because her voice has been strained by a long string of colds last year, and partly because we thought we were too busy. But, this is absolutely my favorite way to spend an evening during the Christmas season.

I love being able to play the piano and organ, especially throughout the Christmas season. Nothing is more inspiring to me than to lead a group of people from the organ or piano as they sing “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night,” and to feel the love of God filling the room. It’s the same feeling – the love of God transforming the space – whether it’s a couple hundred people filling the church with their voices singing in beautiful harmony, or a dozen inmates filling the jail chapel with beautiful melodies as an impromptu women’s choir, or Mim singing alone at home. In all cases, God is with us.

Last Saturday morning when I was at church practicing the music for Sunday’s service, the pastor came into the sanctuary to chat for a few minutes. He commented that this Sunday (yesterday) was the last Sunday for singing Christmas carols. It was the last Sunday of the Christmas season. “Joy to the World” was the recessional we sang.

Now I can put the Christmas music away till next year. I’m ready. But I’m sure I’ll be just as ready to bring it out again as we approach Christmas 2013.

 Christmas Music

Enjoying Christmas Music to the Fullest

Mim directing her family Christmas program on Christmas Eve.

I love Christmas music – listening to it, singing it, and playing it on the piano and organ. The Christmas music season for me begins the Monday after Thanksgiving (today!) and extends at least throughout the week of Epiphany (January 6), and sometimes longer.

I like playing Christmas carols from hymnals, but I also like playing fancy arrangements of carols and secular Christmas songs, too. Without counting them, I’m sure I have at least fifty books of piano arrangements of Christmas music, and at least 25 books of organ arrangements. I need a good six weeks to even play everything once.

Getting into the spirit of Christmas music, I asked Mim yesterday about her earliest memories of singing Christmas Carols. Her fondest memory is of the Christmas Eve programs she organized for her family every year when she was a child. Her grandmother and her two aunts joined Mim and her mom and dad for a lutefisk dinner on Christmas Eve. After the traditional Norwegian meal, Mim ushered everyone into the living room to begin the program.

Mim listening to her dad read the Christmas Story.

Mim handed out songbooks and selected the Christmas carols for the family to sing. They were all the traditional carols – O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Away in a Manger, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, Jeg er sa glad hver julekveld (I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve). The last one they sang in Norwegian.

After the carol sing, Mim’s dad, a Lutheran pastor, read the Christmas story from the second chapter of Luke. The program ended with opening presents. But the highlight of the evening wasn’t the presents. It was the program – the singing and reading the Christmas story. The lutefisk dinner was a close second. Really. Mim likes lutefisk!

One of my own memories of singing Christmas carols comes from my high school years. I was part of the church choir of about a dozen members. We ranged in age from 14 to 84. On Christmas morning, around 5:00, we gathered at our choir director’s house and then walked around Cambridge singing Christmas carols. We also drove to the homes of some church members who lived in the country to sing to them. Why we went caroling so early, and whether or not people enjoyed being awakened to our caroling, I don’t really know. But we had fun doing it. We ended up at our choir director’s house again for some hot chocolate and Christmas cookies.

Mim sang in the 2000 Singing Christmas Tree. She’s in the middle of the third row. Aunt Edith was the pianist in the red jacket in the front row.

That choir director was also our church organist, and my piano and organ teacher. She was very creative and started the annual tradition of the “Singing Christmas Tree” in 1965. Her husband built a Christmas tree-shaped set of risers that we assembled in the front of the church sanctuary. A chicken wire fence was mounted in front of each riser. We wired fresh evergreens to the fences. The end result was a fragrant but scratchy Christmas tree for the choir members to stand in while singing a Christmas Concert.

The “Singing Christmas Tree” tradition has outlived the choir director and many of its original choir members. For over forty years, this concert has been presented the first weekend in December, missing only a couple years throughout almost five decades. This year’s concert is scheduled for Saturday, December 1, at 4:30 p.m. and Sunday, December 2, at 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Last year, Whispering Winds started a new tradition for people who like to sing lots of Christmas carols just for fun – not as a concert, just to get together with friends to sing. That’s coming up on December 16 at 3:00 in the afternoon. I’ll let Mim hand out the songbooks, and then anyone can choose what carols (and even a few secular songs) they want to sing. We’ll sing about an hour, then take a break for coffee and Christmas cookies, and then get back to singing as long as our voices hold out. Feel free to join us at 3:00 p.m. Sunday, December 16. Call me (608.212.6197) if you have any questions.

Meanwhile, I hope your ears, voices, and fingers enjoy the next several weeks of Christmas music as much as mine will! The words of “Joy to the World” capture some of the wonder and excitement of Christmas music. Even heaven and nature are so excited about the coming of Christ to earth that they can’t keep from singing.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
let every heart prepare him room
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven and heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy
repeat the sounding joy
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

[“Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts, 1674-1748]

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven, 201 Highland Rd, Cambridge, WI.
The last of this year’s quarterly hymn sings is the Christmas Carol Sing at 3:00 Sunday afternoon, December 16. Everyone is welcome.