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Christmas Eve in London

25 Dec

We dashed across Trafalgar Square at 5:40 on Christmas Eve and found the line heading into St. Martin in the Fields wrapped around the corner. Cheerful ladies waited at the door handing out 16 page programs with all the hymns, readings and poems printed out. They had printed exactly 870 programs, the maximum number allowed inside the church by the fire marshall. We were close to the last ones admitted and almost had to split into pairs to find a seat before another couple vacated an aisle bench that held all four of us. We sat down and immediately were startled that the bench might give way before we realized it was permanently leaning forward from years of wear. We had to plant our feet squarely on the floor in front of us to keep from slipping out.

The church was filled to capacity. The balcony surrounding the perimeter was teeming. The service was not scheduled to start until 6:30, but at 6, a woman I could not see began to address the crowd. In a thick British accent she said, “Well, the service is not scheduled to begin until 6:30, but since you all have come so early, and there so very many of you here who seem to want to stay, we thought we would conduct a rehearsal. And since this is a carol service, we will see if you are good singers. Those of you who are not will be asked to leave and we will bring in the others who are waiting outside to see if they can sing better.” The crowd erupted into laughter. Ah, Christmas cheer. She wasn’t kidding, though. She turned the service over to the choir director who had us practice “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” He abruptly stopped us halfway into the first verse and threatened to have us removed if we did not pipe up and really sing. He then led us through several verses of other carols, intermittently praising and scolding us into better singing.

The service did finally start at 6:30 and became a bit more serious, though there were moments of humor. We prayed for the members of the church who were ill and for Queen Elizabeth and all of Europe for teetering on the brink of financial disaster. I wondered if any church services at home were praying for our leaders, who I hear treated themselves to a vacation instead completing the work at hand.

The sermon was about giving gifts and getting it right when it comes to giving from the heart. It struck me because Christmas shopping this year flummoxed me. I usually take great joy and care in searching out and finding just the right thing for people I love. This year, each time I tried, my head would spin and I would literally have to leave the store and go cry in my car. I was overwhelmed with the thought of missing my family, missing my friends, missing my life as I know it and knew that any gift exchange would simply amplify these feelings. I bumbled through my good-byes in the days just before Christmas and got lost in a fog of jet lag after I arrived.

When I finally awoke on Christmas Eve, I was in St. Martin in the Fields surrounded by 866 strangers, my husband and sons, all singing Christmas carols. The choir was indescribably beautiful as their voices rose and fell in the beautiful vaulted and domed ceilings around the church.

My favorite new carol is called “Little Donkey.” It is a hymn of encouragement for the donkey who carried Mary to the stable. I had never heard of it before, but listening to my 18 year-old son belt it out on Christmas Eve in London is sure to become a lasting favorite Christmas memory for me.

Little Donkey, little donkey on the dusty road.
Got to keep on plodding onwards with your precious load.
Been a long time, little donkey through the winter’s night
Don’t give up now, little donkey, Bethlehem’s in sight.