Do you instruct the congregation in the lighting of the candles? This is the *wrong* way.
Do you instruct the congregation in the lighting of the candles? This is the *wrong* way.

To the Worthy Matriarchs,
I am serving in a new-to-me church this year and had a meeting recently with the Director of Music to plan our Christmas Eve service. Given that pastoral and musical territory overlap a great deal on that night, I wanted to be sure we undertook our planning with an attitude of good humor and openness. I was prepared to give as well as get.
The resulting conversation reminded me that we are sometimes hampered by the limitations of our experiences. In one church, the service has always ended with Silent Night and candles. In another, that moment is capped by the lights coming back and a resounding chorus of Joy to the World!
What are some traditions that surprised you when you came to a new congregation? And what, if any, are your personal “non-negotiables” for Christmas Eve, be they carols or readings or rituals?
Sign me,
O Little Town of Bethlehem (all the verses, please)

OLTB (atv,p) –

At my first ordained call as a solo pastor I was told that whatever I wanted to do on Christmas Eve was fine, “Just include the favorites”. I was wary of this advice, but working with the very part time musicians didn’t uncover any surprising secrets. On the 23rd I showed the bulletin to a VERY active member of the congregation – a child of the church – who said, “Where’s Let There Be Peace on Earth? Ummmm…. what? That congregation ended it’s Christmas Eve service – the very last song as the pastor recessed out the center aisle – with “Let there be peace on earth… and let it begin with me!” A perfectly fine sentiment, to be sure, but not exactly on every church’s ‘must have’ Christmas Eve list. I was VERY thankful to have received that information just in time.

Non-negotiable: processing to O Come All Ye Faithful and somewhere Angels We Have Heard on High, Joy to the World and Silent Night.

kathrynzj at Volume II

Dear All the Verses,

I am a United Church of Christ pastor, and there are no worship “musts” that I can decree as non-negotiables for a worship service. The only non-negotiables I would have is that we praise God and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in every worship experience. To be trite: the message is non-negotiable; the method is quite negotiable.

When I serve as an Interim Pastor, I show a lot of curiosity in getting them to tell me about their traditions. I get them to tell me “when” and “why” and “what did you do before that” so that they can see that they really haven’t “always” done it that way. When they tell me that “all churches do that,” or “it’s the UCC way of doing things,” or “it’s the right way,” I can say, “actually, no.” They are sometimes very surprised that they made those rules and they can change them. My hope is that, by the time the settled pastor arrives, they have become a little more flexible and a lot more intentional about keeping traditions.

They will surely reap the rewards of your very good-natured way of approaching these “firsts” in your new setting. Enjoy!

Sharon at Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Dear Pastor Bethlehem-

One of the biggest surprises in my first call was not related to Christmas but to funerals. It was the tradition in that small town that at a set time during the visitation at the funeral home, the director would read each one of the cards on the floral arrangements. One family tried ardently to not include this ritual but nobody would go home that night because there hadn’t been “the reading of the flowers.” Finally the family consented and after each card was read, so that you could see who had sent what, people began to go home.

My “non-negotiable” for Christmas Eve is that you don’t mess around with the traditions that people hold up as significant. They’re not the same from one place to another, but heaven help you if you decide to choose an alternate setting of Silent Night. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t any room for new things, just be measured and careful.

Heidi aka RevHRod

Hold the lit candle upright.
Hold the lit candle upright.

Dear AtV,

A church I served as Interim Associate had a Christmas Eve tradition brought in by a previous Senior Pastor who had been long gone by that time. The tradition, however, had become hard-wired and was so deeply treasured and vocally defended that it began to sound strange to me. On the last line of “Silent Night,” the congregation raises and lowers the candles. 

I stood in the back with my daughter for the first of three services that day (a Christmas pageant/family service). We were admittedly dubious about the whole idea. Anything that people defend to the conversational death raises a red flag for me. Wasn’t this just a weird loyalty to the guy who wasn’t even the last Senior Pastor? 

Then we saw it, the light rising, and we understood. 

Since then, I say, try the traditions, no matter how odd they sound to you. If they really miss the mark, there’s always another Christmas to come and a whole year to have a conversation about it.

My own non-negotiables, in addition to the one you named (!) are “O Come, All Ye Faithful” as a processional and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” which I once had to defend to a colleague as well-known because they sing it in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Different strokes, right? 

Martha at Reflectionary

Readers, what about you? Rituals you came to love or had to ease out of use? Favorite things on Christmas Eve? Share your thoughts in the comments. And if you have a question for our panel, please send it to askthematriarch at gmail dot com.

6 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Christmas Eve traditions

  1. I was told that the children always come forward to sing “Away in a Manger” at the point in the lessons where the birth occurs. Anything else I wanted to do was great, but that had to happen. Fine. And then when that point came, half of the children (the little girl half, which is to say the half who actually sing) were mysteriously in the bathroom together, so I had to do some impromptu rearranging.

    The other tradition is that during communion, they say, “The body and blood of Christ, born in you today.”


  2. One of my favorite “new pastor at Christmas” stories is of a colleague whose congregation had neglected to tell him that the Christmas Star whizzed up a wire into place during the last hymn. He barely had time to duck to avoid being smacked in the face!


  3. Christmas Eve was a lot easier as an interim, I just went with the “usual” with two small editions: The opening was a solo of the first verse of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”, which I can no longer sustain my voice ( since my illness that forced retirement) to even begin….and “Stille Nacht” ( Silent Night), again first verse solo in honor of my parents’ German Heritage. And, since I was alone at that time, with no family, they kind of humored me.

    My tradition introduced in every parish I ever served, was a “History of Carols” service the first Sunday AFTER Christmas taken ( with permission) and adapted from a Canadian website. Let’s face it, First Sunday after Christmas is one if the lowest attendance of the year…might as well have fun…right?


  4. At my current church, at the end, the congregation gathers in a circle around the sanctuary with candles, one of our young people sings the first verse of silent night, the candles are lit, starting from the Christ candle as the congregation sings all three verses. There is no way I would mess with this tradition, the repercussions would be huge. Mind you, I am leaving January 15th, so hmmn… 😉


  5. At my second appointment, the people gathered in a circle at the end and counted around the circle. No one could tell me anything except that it was a tradition. At least I had an accurate headcount for the service. I am pretty flexible and try to honor traditions unless there is an absolute good theological reason not to. Like this year, I was told that traditionally the Christmas Eve service is 30 minutes and contains both Communion and Candlelighting. I said no. I agreed to 50 minutes. My rationale: it’s Jesus’ birth we are celebrating, not ours. I don’t know anyone who has a 30 minute birthday.


  6. i guess I drew the line on the very thing the questioner brought up. I insisted on raising the lights and the organ after the candlelight “Silent Night” so that we would go forth in joy and celebration of the Birth. I should have let it go. Some thought I ruined Christmas for them. But, then, this was and is a dying church mired in its many lifeless traditions.


We hope you'll join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.