Embracing holiday sounds and symbols
By Reverend Howard Clark
What symbols or images have meaning for you at this season of the year – the time leading up to the end of December? That probably depends a great deal on your family traditions. Are you getting ready for a big celebration such as Christmas or Hannukah?
We know it will be cold and we may even have snow at this time and, for some people, skating on an outdoor rink may be one of their images. For others, the image may be a Salvation Army kettle, with the uniformed member of the Army shaking a tambourine. One of the images that has resonance for me is the Salvation Army band. They used to come and play on the street corner near our home in Yorkshire early on Christmas Eve, and I still have a soft spot for brass-band-led carols. Another image is the church choir, which always used to come around to our house about 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Not many diehards doing that these days!
For many of us, it is the sounds of the season, particularly music, that connect deep down with us. And I know people who are not particularly religious who can’t get through the month of December without a fix of Christmas carols or even Handel’s Messiah. Of course much of the piped music in malls and stores often spoils that “fix” by going on for far too many weeks.
The history of music tells us that the “carol” was a secular dance tune or song, originally connected with the rites of springtime that was coopted by English church musicians to be used for religious Christmas songs. Very few of the pieces we call Christmas carols are actually “carols.” So, when Charles Dickens titled his famous work with Ebenezer Scrooge as principal character, I think he was creating a dance in literature – or a song for the season perhaps? For many people the sight of Scrooge or one of the ghosts of Christmas past, present or future is also a sign of the season. Whatever his intention with the title, Dickens’ intention in the plot is very clear; miserly ways pour cold water over not only the miser but those who are close to him. Yet even in those far flung workhouse days of Dickens, Bob Cratchitt, Scrooge’s clerk, who has little power and almost no income, makes the most of his life even though one of his sons is very sick and may die.
There is one symbol or image that holds up across our many religious traditions. It is the image evoked by the words of the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible,” and “The more you are motivated by love, the more fearless and free your actions will be.” While this strikes a chord at this season of the year, it only has real meaning when it is done as a year-round kind of thing.
Enjoy this season of lights and sounds and all that makes it meaningful for you.
Rev. Howard Clark is part of the interim ministry at Glebe St. James United Church.
Christmas traditions at the German Martin Luther Church
By Friedrich Demke
If you come and visit the German Martin Luther Church on the corner of Preston Street and Carling Avenue during the days of Advent, one thing will catch your eye immediately. There is a large wreath suspended from the ceiling. The wreath holds four real red candles, each one symbolizing one week of the four weeks until Christmas. It is a German invention and by now, a tradition with many people. The inventor was the director of an orphanage in Hamburg. His idea was to help the children with their growing impatience as they anticipated the most celebrated holiday during the year. Sometimes, if I walk through a shop before Remembrance Day and have to listen to Christmas carols already, I am tempted to hand out more of those wreaths to remind people that a time of anticipation and waiting can also be a special and wonderful time to be savoured.
At the German Martin Luther Church, we have a magnificent Christmas tree decorated solely with handcrafted straw stars and golden nuts; it is well worth the visit! Under the tree is displayed the nativity scene, artfully handmade by members of our congregation.
As the night before Christmas comes close, it is we Germans who cannot wait. Traditionally, the Christmas worship service is held in the late afternoon of December 24, and all the children expect to find their gifts under the Christmas tree on returning home. For them, it is the newborn child, Jesus the Christ, who brings the gifts. Some children are even luckier, coming from families with a variety of traditions in their backgrounds. They may get to celebrate Christmas twice: first on the 24th in the evening, and also the next morning with their stockings suspended from the chimney.
A centrepiece of our worship service on Christmas Eve is the Christmas pageant. It is different every year, but we always enact a part of the story about the birth of Christ. It is the children of the Sunday school who put on the play for the children visiting us with their families that night. In order to welcome children and their families to our worship on this special night, our service is conducted partly in English, partly in German, and it lasts about 45 minutes. Later that evening, we hold a traditional candlelight service that includes special music for quiet listening and lots of Christmas carols so that celebrants can sing along. It is attended by many who would rather have a quiet time listening to readings, or visiting us to see the tree on this special night. This service is over just before midnight and it ends the day.
We are very happy to have visitors who want to celebrate this special night a little differently this year! No matter when you come for our Christmas worship, the service always ends with the hymn “O du fröhliche, gnaden bringende Weihnachtszeit!” (“O Joyful and Blessed Christmastime”). And this, after a time of patient anticipation, would be my wish to you!
Pastor Friedrich Demke began his six-year term as a pastor of the German Martin Luther Church in 2011. He is joined here in Ottawa by his wife, Alexandra, and two children. To find out more about the German Martin Luther Church, consult its website at www.glco.org or contact Pastor Demke at 613-748-9745.