MIDDLEBURY — When the opening strains of organ and choral music swell to fill Mead Chapel each December for the annual Lessons and Carols service, many area residents sense they have truly entered the Christmas season. Now in its 40th year, the program of Bible readings and carols for choir, organ and congregation is an invitation for community members to be transformed.
“The Christmas season starts here,” said Grace Weber, a former choir member and long-time attendee of Lessons and Carols. “It’s a chance to get away from the commercialism of December. This is my relief.”
Mead Chapel will host the 40th anniversary Lessons and Carols this Sunday, Dec. 11, in two services: at 4 and 7 p.m. It will feature a special guest reader, former Gov. Jim Douglas, who, as a Middlebury College senior in 1971, read from the Gospel according to Luke at the first local Lessons and Carols service.
Those who organize the annual ritual say it is designed to provide a respite, as well as enrichment, to those swept up in the holiday season.
“The beginning of the service is a really special time for me,” said Jeff Buettner, director of the Middlebury College Chapel Choir. “The opening is a time to focus on what’s ahead. For the rest of the hour you know that there’s nothing but the music to think about.”
Lessons and Carols is nothing but beautiful music and the timeless story of Christ’s coming, arranged in a traditional format borrowed from King’s College in Cambridge, England. Organist Emory Fanning, who organized the first Middlebury Lessons and Carols, calls the English format “primarily music with short readings from the Scriptures.
“There have been some slight modifications in the Scriptures, depending on who the chaplain was at the time, but you can’t change the story,” Fanning said. “All of the readings are works of art, really.”
“It feeds the human spirit, whether you’re a Christian or not,” said Weber, a Weybridge resident who especially enjoys the scriptural readings in the program. “The message of Christ’s love can transcend those boundaries.”
Middlebury’s Lessons and Carol’s service draws visitors from around the county and state, congregating to sing in the Christmas season together. This year, Middlebury College Chaplain Laurie Jordan expects between 650 and 800 attendees across both services.
“I think that for many people singing Christmas carols with a large group of people connects them to warm memories,” Jordan said. “Of childhood, of family life, of their deepest beliefs about the universe, and their desires for peace on earth and the well-being of the human family. The Nativity lessons in particular bring the grand theme of divine love down to a domestic and intimate level that is very appealing.”
Between the scriptural readings — or lessons — the Middlebury College Chapel Choir performs under Buettner’s direction with anchoring organ accompaniment by Fanning. This year the choir will also be joined by a brass quartet.
“We’ve begun preparing in bits and pieces since Nov. 11,” Buettner said. With only a month to practice, Buettner and the choir have had to work hard to present the memorable service that the community has come to expect.
“We’ll repeat three of the choral pieces which we performed in the first one,” Fanning said. “A Tomás Luis de Victoria motet called ‘O Magnum Mysterium,’ ‘Salvation is Created’ by Chesnokov, and Herbert Howells’ ‘A Spotless Rose.’”
Buettner said that about half of this year’s music was performed at the first Lessons and Carols, including the opening piece. The traditional music supports more contemporary numbers, including the final choral number, which Buettner called “very sparkly.”
“They’re the perfect bookends for the service,” Buettner said.
Fanning, who has missed only two Lessons and Carols in its 40 years at Middlebury, said that the customary format is flexible enough to accommodate shifts in musical styles. Laurie Jordan agreed.
“There is always new choral and congregational music being written for Advent and Christmas,” Jordan said. “I think in the coming century more sacred choral music will originate from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where Christianity is experiencing huge growth.”
Between the choral bookends and contemporary pieces, there’s a core of familiar hymns to unite the service.
“It’s a holiday religious event that people use as a push-off into the Christmas season,” Fanning said, “so we like to keep many of the congregational hymns so everyone can join in.”
While the opening of the service puts people in the mood of the season, the hour-long ceremony always ends on a high point.
“Every year one of my very favorite moments is at the end when we are all singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and the sopranos in the choir add a descant,” Jordan said. “We are singing ‘Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation’ and it really does sound pretty heavenly.”
Reporter Christian Woodard is at [email protected]