In this edition of Interfaith Voices, John Woodhouse reflects on ‘Faith and Festivities’ by writing about his experiences of Christian festivities, with a particular focus on the joy that Christmas brings him.
I think Christian festivals bring the community together, especially families, who I think are the basis of the community. At Christmas we remember those we have neglected during the year by sending greetings and cards and sometimes gifts. Families gather to eat and drink together both at home and at the Eucharist. Many come to church for Midnight Mass, carol services and Christingles who normally do not come so they must feel welcome. The congregation can use these opportunities to meet and greet strangers. This can also be done by carol singing in public places! Christmas can be a distressing time for the bereaved and lonely, which is why many churches offer lunch on Christmas day to those who would otherwise be alone. They also offer night shelters to the homeless. We give gifts to remember that we have received the greatest gift of all in God becoming a man like us – the mystery of the incarnation.
The two churches I attend are rather different. Mass at Westminster cathedral can attract a 1000 people many of them visitors to the city and strangers. We do have a welcoming team and the clergy are always available outside after Mass. St John’s is Church of England with some High Church elements. There is a regular congregation of around 60 at the 10 a.m. Sung Eucharist on Sundays. The choir is small. For Christmas we welcome extra singers for the carol service which is followed by mince pies and mulled wine in church. At Midnight Mass we will sing some simple carols and again there are welcomers. I am not involved in the Christingle service on Christmas Eve but I know this is well attended! In fact I will be travelling to Caterham at least 6 times in Christmas week mostly by car as the trains will not be running. Christmas day is an all-age service at which we use the Lourdes Gloria and Walsingham Mass setting.
In contrast, Holy Week and Easter bring the church community together to celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Holy Week involves Maundy Thursday evening Eucharist, Good Friday three hours and best of all Easter Vigil very early on Easter Day. This is followed by cooked breakfast and 10 a.m. Sung Eucharist. Attendance at some of these services is small but those who do come take a full part. It certainly helps to bring us together when we are few in number! Visitors are sure of a warm welcome.
For me personally Christmas is a very busy and tiring time with preparing for and playing the organ at carol services and Christmas services. By 3 p.m. on Christmas Day I am asleep! I do love the carols especially “In the bleak midwinter” and Rutter’s Angels carol and it is traditional to sing carols round the piano at home. Listening to King’s carols on Christmas Eve has been the start of Christmas for me ever since I listened as a boy to BBC World service in South Africa. I have actually been to this service at King’s once in 1972 and sung at concerts with King’s college choir when I was in the Philharmonia Chorus! Music always brings back memories of my late Mum and Dad and many happy family gatherings including one at Christmas in Tasmania and an amazing Christmas in India. Apart from that I have always been at home for Christmas with the family if at all possible!
I think that festivities should raise our minds to a higher plane to realise what we are celebrating. Christmas is one time when differences in families can be forgotten especially when we focus on the children. Some of the secular aspects of Christmas can be assimilated at home and at church. It is all about joy and happiness!
John is a Catenian, a Catholic professional man, and committed Catholic organist who plays at St John Caterham Valley. John has been married to Liz for 43 years and has 3 wonderful children and 3 grandsons. He is passionate about interfaith work at Westminster cathedral where he’s a server.