By David Palmer

One of the things that generates loyalty to the Episcopal Church among its parishioners is an affection for its traditions. (Just ask any member of the committee for the 1982 Hymnal whether they got an earful for removing “Turn Back, O Man” from it!) The festival of lessons and carols (usually nine) is among these beloved traditions. Usually offered during Advent, when scheduled late, it often has plenty of Christmas content.

It may come as a surprise to some that this perennial tradition actually has its origins in 1880. The famous annual presentation of this service at King’s College, Cambridge began in 1918 when the dean of the college became convinced that more imaginative worship was needed by the Church of England. These facts remind us that all traditions were once new and that, when the church’s worship needs an injection of creativity, it may not be helpful to say, “But we’ve never done it that way!”

Much as Stravinsky redefined musical traditions in his neoclassicism, Christ Episcopal Church in Ballston Spa in upstate New York, redefined the tradition of lessons and carols in 1994, hoping to bringing new people into the church.

The idea originated with a parishioner, Field Horne, who spoke to the then-new rector, Derik Roy, about offering a service that drew on non-mainstream carols, primarily Celtic, African-American, and Shape Note. Given the go-ahead, Horne recruited musicians both in and out of the parish to do the service. He hired two folk musicians, John Kirk and Trish Miller, whom he knew from music circles and who had just moved to the area to play and sing. Not only did they agree, but when the church decided to offer the service again the next year, “John and Trish,” Horne says, “who are the headliners in every way, said, no, they didn’t want to be paid, because they were joining the parish.”

Since then, Christ Church has offered the service every year with continuing innovations in its repertoire. Horne says, “My personal feeling is that Christmas carols have been overdone. We have about a dozen that are the standards. Leaving church aside, you hear them on Muzak way too much. We do a lot of songs that are basically unknown. Musically, they’re all strong; theologically, I think they’re pretty good; and the audience loves to hear them and loves to hear the occasional new one and also the ones that we haven’t done in a few years. We have way over 50, 60 [songs in total]. So, we’re doing between 9 and 12 every year, and we obviously cycle through them.” The congregation sings one or two songs, not necessarily carols, from the 1982 hymnal. The rest are sung by soloists and small ensembles.

Christ Church can seat 180 to 200 with extra chairs, but, after 6 years or so of offering the service, attendance grew beyond standing room, and they had to turn people away. Since then, they have offered the service on two nights, and total attendance each year has been about 350. “I would doubt that more than about 100 any particular year are from the parish itself,” Horne says. “We get a lot of people from neighboring churches, not Episcopalians particularly, and we do get unchurched people.”

The church has produced three CDs of the carols that are sung at the service, each presenting a variety of instrumentation and voices. In addition to guitar, John plays fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and bodhran, the drum used in traditional Irish music. The vocal soloists have distinctive qualities, as if one were hearing Burl Ives, James Taylor, Lyle Lovett, and Carly Simon sing folksongs about Christmas. (All of these artists actually have recordings of Christmas music.) The Kentucky folksong, “Bright Morning Stars are Rising “is sung a cappella by a female trio in close harmony. The choruses of Bob Beers’ “Peace Carol” are sung by a multi-generational ensemble.

The third CD contains the song, “Meadowhall Carol,” by Jim Boyes, which issues a stern rebuke to the world’s indifference to the angels’ song:

Believers say it’s faith and hope and charity that lights the guiding star
And gifts of gold bestowed upon the military that fans the flames of war.
‘Let swords be drawn, ploughshares foresworn, and crops remain ungrown;
Let children starve and life be scorned in a God-forsaken zone.”

Classic Christmas music, too, has its share of challenging messages, from the Coventry Carol’s reminder of the slaughter of the innocents to the last verse of “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” which prays, “Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.”

Even commercial radio, with its endless Christmastime iterations of “Jingle Bell Rock “and “Sleigh Ride,” will occasionally play John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas,” in which the artist expresses his feeling that “the world is so wrong” and calls out that we “stop all the fight.” 38 years after Lennon’s recording, Midge Ure and Bob Geldof released “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” a song about “the other ones,” the “world outside your window… of dread and fear.”

Clearly, there is a need for churches to recognize the collective and personal darkness that groups and individuals may experience in the season of light. One response has been alternative “Blue Christmas” liturgies that express the Christmas message with a sensitivity to those who may be feeling depression, sadness, or grief. For those many participants, these services offer a much-needed adaptation of Christmas traditions.

Information about the CDs and Christ Church’s lessons and carols services is available at christepiscopalballstonspa.org.

David Palmer is a rock and jazz musician living in southwestern Ohio.