Back in 2010, I celebrated Christmas twice. No, not the Vicar of Dibley Christmas dinner act, nor a quick trip to Lapland to visit Santa; but having survived the rigours of a parish Christmas, with its four masses in 18 hours, I caught a plane to Addis Ababa and thus moved from the Gregorian calendar to the Julian calendar still followed by Ethiopian Christians, gaining those eleven days lost to the English in 1752.
We headed North, ultimately as far as Axum and Tigray, but on the Julian Christmas Day we were in Lalibela, the town famous for its troglodyte churches, each of them excavated out of the sandstone and each of them representing one of the sacred sites in the Bible.
While it was still dark, I went with my host to stand in the pit surrounding the church which represents Bethlehem, joining the crowd of locals who had been there since midnight. Unlike this well-fed European, many of them had walked to Lalibela for a day or more beforehand, following their traditional pre-festal fast all the while. At dawn, as the service was ending, the village priests, all dressed in white, appeared on the parapet round the courtyard where we stood. They sang, as the Christmas chorus of angels, to us poor shepherds down below. At least, that is how it was explained to me. And then the crowd slowly dispersed, making their way back down the hill towards the hotel where I was staying, past a refreshment stall where injera bread and tea was served for free to the returning pilgrims and, at my host's insistence, to myself.
The whole experience was deeply impressive – the sort of thing that naturally stays in the memory. But it was the image of angels and shepherds which I found myself thinking about at the start of December as we decided how to arrange our services this year, second-guessing the course of the virus and the health-protection restrictions which might be in force by December 25. Last year, as you might remember, churches were allowed to operate only with “one-metre-plus” measures in place. In other words, not only did every other row have to be roped off but a metre gap had to be kept between every family bubble along the length of the benches. And, needless to say, both dramatic movement and singing were outlawed. Booking people in safely was a nightmare, but somehow we managed to squeeze 350 people in – spread across five services, held between 3pm on the 24 December and 11am on Christmas morning. Not being in anyone's domestic bubble, the parish priest then retired exhausted to his solitary Christmas dinner, one of the three delivered by kind parishioners. Such was last Covid Christmas.
For many years pre-pandemic, our parish had had an early evening mass aimed at children, with an invitation to dress up as angels, shepherds and the like and to make their appearance on the sanctuary at the appropriate moment in the reading of the Gospel. Families have flocked to it in dangerous numbers – more than 450 people on at least one occasion. Presiding at this mass always felt like surfing a wave. Lose either your balance or momentum and the whole edifice could come crashing down, given the levels of excitement among the children gathered there.
Knowing how many would be disappointed, given the numbers we could accommodate last Christmas Eve, in 2020 I added a 3pm Crib service – with myself blessing the crib, telling the Christmas Gospel as a children's story from a big book as I walked around the sanctuary and following up with prayers and a blessing. It was half-an-hour of the most simple liturgy, not far short of Pantomime. But it provided little ones with an experience of church and got everyone out of the building fairly swiftly, in order to reduce the infection risk.
That extra service – contrived by myself and with some musical interludes but none of the usual communal singing of Christmas carols – was not a Eucharist. It was neither “the source and summit” of our parish life nor the pinnacle of theatre. But it did try to meet people where they were – offering something to children too young to absorb the intricacies of the Mass. It also lent a sprinkling of prayer to the secular celebrations that would follow for most of those families who – to be blunt – wanted to keep Christmas Day free for tinsel, turkey and treats.
This year, with restrictions currently less severe and church capacity significantly raised, I've decided against repeating the crib service – unless fresh restrictions threaten our capacity to welcome folk again. That’s firstly because we don't have enough musicians available to cover five different services; secondly because I’m not sure I have the stamina to do five services back-to-back again. It’s the sensible decision, yet it sits very heavily with me.
Let's return to that image of the angels and shepherds in Lalibela. It seems to me that by offering a diet simply of Christmas Masses we're preaching to the angels, rather than to the groundling shepherds. We're assuming that the “once-a-year families” – God bless them, I am always so delighted to welcome them – are ready for such rich fare as Mass. My hammed-up doggerel telling of the Gospel seems better calibrated to their need to hear the angels' message in words that they can understand. But I'm not offering it, because I need all my energies for the Eucharistic celebrations that will follow. Could it be that the Franciscans were onto something when they set themselves to be Christ’s troubadours and borrowed local tunes to voice their carols? Maybe as the clergy numbers fall in coming years, we'll liberate that tradition once again, with lay-led mumming of the angels’ song at home, in pubs and in our churches too.
Fr Rob Esdaile is parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, Thames Ditton