Person 1: “I think you’ll find you pronounce it wenite, not venite. It’s LATINPerson 2: ”Yeah, but church Latin. So they sang venite, not wenite“ 1: ”So they were wrong. wenite 2: “venite. Seriously. Singing wenite just sounds weird.” 1: “I don’t care. It’s right” Poor unfortunate next to them in the pew: “Seriously, guys?”
For the best part of ten years, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without a mock argument at the University Carol Service (which remains the only service I’ve been to which actually sings the Adeste Fideles in Latin) about how to pronounce the key word in the chorus. Even now, when I hear Adeste Fideles (of which there are two versions in my iTunes, because I couldn’t choose between the boy choristers and the full choir, /0) I have a mental giggle. I’m still looking for a service in London that will let me indulge my taste for carols in their original lanugage (Stille Nacht too - how is it possible to translate that carol so many weird ways - methodist hymnal I’m looking at you - just sing it in German already).
All this madness is by way of saying that there is a Way of Doing Things at Christmas that is Proper. And while everyone has their own Things, let’s be honest, mine is the Right One (oh, you know you think yours is too). Why else is family Christmas so often a fraught process of negotiation.
Stockings before or after breakfast/church? Lunch or dinner? Dog walk then presents or the other way round? Turkey or Duck? Standing up for the anthem during the Queen’s Speech or not? Church on Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning, Midnight Mass (or all of the above)?
Because actually, it’s all these things that make up Christmas, not the presents. And they all make up Christmas because they tell us what we think Christmas is about. So for me, Christmas is about O Come All Ye Faithful (but not the “Yea, Lord we greet Thee…” verse till Christmas day), the choir boy singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City in Kings College Chapel, the poetry of those passages in Isaiah and John in the King James Bible, the Nutcracker, Strauss Waltzes, Apfelstrudel, gluhwein, Doctor Who scouring the recipe books for something to do with all the bits that come with the duck (duck liver pate, nom. Which is to say, it’s about preparing the vegetables for dinner with my parents on Christmas Eve with the carol service on the Radio, watching Who and drinking gluhwein with my Dad, going to the ballet with my Mum, family dinners of really good food where you actually know where it came from because the farmer lives just down the road, thank you very much, and about a story that has rhythm and timing and build up and up to that final verse of O Come All Ye Faithful, because you have to wait for it, and then it’s worth it. Presents are nice and all, don’t get me wrong - I want them. But if I had to choose, I’d rather have the good roast dinner and the music.
Last week at college we were talking about spiritual texts - things that bridge the spaces between intellectual theology and the emotional connection with God. We talked a lot about art and architecture - but not actually about music. And for me, music and eating with people are the things - the space where the my head and my heart actually interconnect and make sense of God in my life in a way that is richer than anything else.
It’s why I agree with Tom Wright in Surprised by Joy when he says that the lyrics of hymns and the theology that they express matters. And it’s why Advent and Christmas are the richest, warmest time of the Christian calendar for me - the time where my faith, which is often about choice and commitment that I determine to stick with and root in my life through habit and behaviour, becomes instinctive and emotional. It’s why I easily get on board with arguments about why communion matters and why eating together in your communities matters. For at Christmas it’s not enough to explain what this festival means to my faith and my life in it in words and in thoughts and ideas: it can only truly be expressed in the power of the words ringing through the music in The Messiah or in Once in Royal David’s City, and the smell of the mulled wine coming off the stove as it plays on the radio and I prep the potatoes for the roast.
So over the weekend I cracked out the Christmas music and made cranberry chutney to go with the ham, and on Friday I'm off to the Nutcracker...