For choirs across the country, you can have a concert during the Christmas season— just do not call them Christmas concerts.
“You should know that St. Margaret’s does not put on a Christmas concert,” wrote Ruth Widdicombe, music director for St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, during an email exchange with the Anglican Journal. However, she stresses that St. Margaret’s does put on an “Advent Festival,” on the first or second Sunday of Advent, with as many as 10 readings from Scripture, followed by a choral response. There are also Advent hymns and prayers.
“No Christmas lessons are read, no Christmas hymns are sung…This is because Advent is not Christmas backwards, but is a time of preparation for the mystery of the incarnation; and because it is such a great mystery, it must be prepared for,” says Widdicombe. “On Christmas Eve, and only then, does the church sing Christmas carols…lots of wonderful choral Christmas music,” from then until the Epiphany.
Widdicombe adds that Charpentier’s “Midnight Mass for Christmas,” complete with flutes, strings, organ and soloists, has been performed at St. Margaret’s on Christmas Eve.
Sandra Bender, choirmaster at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Quebec City, agrees that, at her church, there is “never a stand-alone Christmas concert,” but, like St. Margaret’s, the cathedral will host an Advent concert on the third Advent Sunday. (Coincidentally, Bender was a musical assistant at St. Margaret’s in Winnipeg before moving to Quebec several years ago.)
Bender prepares her 12-member choir for the Advent concert with two, two-hour rehearsals, with seven different pieces rehearsed on the Tuesday and Saturday preceding the concert. She gives credit to her choir in being able to turn things around quickly. “They pull off some rather amazing things,” Bender says.
As for the Advent concert itself, “it’s a service that has no sermon,” the trained opera singer said. “[But] it’s a lot like a concert,” and choosing the music, for her, is a matter of “how Advent-y versus Christmas-y you want to make it,” choosing between choral pieces and hymns. “I’m always looking at the whole experience. It’s like planning a dinner party.”
Bender is also the cathedral’s director of liturgy, so, by her definition, she helps “plan the variable parts of the service.” She chooses hymns, which she says helps, as she seeks to bring Advent lessons and carols back. Now, more performances outside of regular Sunday services have been added, like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Born into a Mennonite family, Bender began conducting church choirs when she was 17 in her native Winnipeg. Christmas was a “special” time for her as a child, but “finding that [right] music as an adult is difficult,” Bender says. Hearing the music of the Advent choirs when she was younger, “I was captivated by that, the ancient tradition of music…I do see music as something that draws people to a church in a way nothing else can.”
Widdicombe agrees that there is something special about an Advent concert.
“The church is packed for this Advent Festival,” Widdicombe wrote. “The church is dark, with a few candles lit.”
Even though everyone is welcome in the church at any time of year, on Christmas Eve, “many people from the wider community attend these services, even those who would perhaps not call themselves Christians,” says Widdicombe.
Desmond Devoy is a newspaper reporter and broadcaster who lives in Smiths Falls, Ont.