The Gentle Guide to my Christmas music

A great and mighty wonder….every year
crib scene in illuminated capital
Sing choirs of angels….and everyone else too

Christmas is another all-nighter for many choirs, like Easter but a slightly different shape.  Instead of the enormous Easter Vigil followed by a day Mass on the Sunday, at Christmas we have a sequence of four (shorter) Masses spread through the night and into the next day. Many, possibly even most, parishes kickstart the celebrations at Christmas with half an hour of carols before Midnight Mass (which doesn’t have to be at midnight any more). So that’s a lot of singing, at a time of year when many people already have sore throats and churches are cold.

Advent and the run-up to Christmas
Female charioteer with four in hand
Me keeping the Advent Alleluias together; the black horse is actually dark pink for Gaudete Sunday

By the time you get to Christmas, you’ve already sung four weeks’ worth of Advent music.  Advent is much shorter than Lent, and the emphasis is on positive waiting and anticipation rather than moving slowly forward through anticipation and dread to new hope, so it feels completely different, and I take my cue from traditional Christmas music to get the mood right.  Even people who don’t sing normally will sing carols, so simple tuneful music is what I am trying to offer, hoping to persuade them to carry on singing once they have started with a carol verse or two….

Christmas music rooted in carols
Volmar having a vord with a recalcitrant Advent Alleluia

A lot of carols (and folk music in general) are in 3/4, and it’s easy to use this time signature to encourage forward movement, so the Advent Alleluia is in 3/4 rather than the more usual 4/4. It’s got some bounce in the rhythm, but the tune is simple, and in the middle of where most people’s voices are comfortable.   This is important, and I do try to think about where people’s voices naturally fall, mainly so that they can’t use that as a cop-out for not singing.

Deck the church with Christmas Alleluias

As soon as we move into the Christmas music, we have the Christmas Alleluia instead of the Advent one.  If you haven’t tried it with the descant, please do, because it’s really easy, but it sounds full of joy and excitement.  People have been singing the Advent Alleluias for four weeks, so they will sit up and pay attention when you give them a new one to sing.  The Christmas Alleluia is meant to sound like a peal of bells, like the choruses in Angels we have heard on high and Ding dong merrily.

Christmas, -mas, -mas, -mas
1 : the Vigil Mass

There are four Masses available for singing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The first is in the evening of Christmas Eve.  It is often regarded as especially for children (and people who don’t want to be out too late in the cold).  Our parish uses it as the Christingle Mass.  It’s an interesting set of music to arrange, because it needs to be jubilant and celebratory while not jumping the gun, as Jesus isn’t born yet.  So that knocks out nearly all carols, which should wait until the next day, as there’s no procession to the crib or similar.  But by now the anticipation is at fever-pitch, we all know what’s going to happen, and the excitement catches in your throat, just like when labour starts and you’re thinking that you are finally going to meet this small person that no-one has been able to hold yet except you.

The psalm for the Vigil (88/89) is joyful but still measured, talking about the history that has led up to this point and the covenant which is being fulfilled.  It almost feels like checking the paperwork at the hospital.  It’s still a question of sorting things out before the baby arrives, making sure everything is ready.   The Alleluia keeps the emphasis of this Vigil Mass clear, putting the stress on its first word  ‘Tomorrow…’, but the excitement should be fizzing and the joy is only a step away.

I do not know why the Canadians have alternative Responses for all the Christmas psalms, but I think it must be because they are in the middle of a revision of their Lectionary, so I’ve just set them, and the choices are up to you.

2 : Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass itself is a marathon, starting (usually) with half an hour of carols.  Some of our most beloved carols are old, some are difficult to sing, several are pitched to make it easier to play the accompaniment than to reach the top notes, and many members of the choir may have colds.  I have tried not to give you too many high notes to worry about, because descants and Hark the herald take quite a toll on the soprano line.  But we need to express joy here, and the music is trying to make this easy to do.  The psalms helpfully equate joy with singing, so we have a head start.

mediaeval animals playing pump organ
If the people don’t sing, even the animals will have to take to the orgen

The Midnight Mass psalm has a Response drawn from elsewhere in the Bible, which doesn’t always work, but does here, as it’s our old friend Psalm 95/96, but with a very careful selction of verses.  The psalm starts by encouraging everyone to sing, and then extends the list of the everyone to include the sea, the land and even the trees to shout for joy because – and then the Response explains the reason : Today a saviour has been born to us; he is Christ the Lord.

Angel bring Christmas message to shepherds
Good news is even better when you sing it

One of the Canadian Responses fits exactly to the tune of the chorus in Adeste fideles, so I had to write another psalm setting so that you could have a 4/4 Response.  So there you have two quite different options, because the other version of the words is irresistibly 3/4 and like other carols.  Adeste is originally a Latin hymn, rather than a carol, so a bit more staid and less skippy, but the other versions should all rollick along.  This is great news, this is exciting!

To add to the fun, the strophes are different lengths, which means I can’t compress the UK and the OZ versions, so you have lots of pages.  At least there are usually lots of people around in the choir loft on Christmas night, so you should be able to find someone to turn over for you if you are playing the organ.  The US and CAN versions have been slightly regularised, so there are compacts of those, but I can’t fit the last Response on to the compact sheets, so make sure you check for Recorder trills or twiddles on the non-compact form for the last verse, because it’s a shame to leave them out.

3 :  Mass at Dawn

This Mass always seems slightly like a poor relation.  It’s for the people who couldn’t come to the previous Masses and who can’t be there for the later morning one (after the stockings and breakfast and putting the turkey on).  It’s a shorter psalm, the next one in the Psalter, as it happens (96/97), and the readings are short too, because this Mass is for the noble souls who have to be on duty in hospitals or fire stations or are helping other people at Christmas.   I don’t want you to miss out on the joy and the excitement, and I think this is a great psalm even if it only has two verses.   But the singers in the choir loft may be feeling a bit weary, so there’s no pyrotechnics and it doesn’t go very high; just a simple bouncy tune reminiscent of a Christmas carol.

Depending on your translation, you have either ‘islands’ or ‘coastlands’ rejoicing in this psalm.  I like to think of the islands picking up their frothy petticoats and twirling away to the dance in the music in honour of the event.

4 :  Mass during the Day

And here’s the last Mass of the day, after which choirs and celebrants are all off-duty and there’s only little things like getting the Christmas dinner to worry about.  This Mass tends to have the most relaxed atmosphere, because the baby has been born and the celebrations have already started.  We move on to the next psalm in the Psalter (97/98), which again tells us to sing and ring out our joy.

It’s interesting to compare this psalm with the one at Midnight Mass.  They are both invitations to sing to the Lord, but the tense has shifted in the day psalm.  Now we are specifically singing about what the Lord has (just) done.  It’s all solid immediate past tenses: he has done wondrous deeds, he has won victory, he has made known his salvation, he has revealed his justice, he has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness, and all the ends of the earth have seen it.  Everything has been sorted out.   This psalm is pure celebration, and keeps repeating its imperatives : in four verses, we are told to sing five times, and even encouraged to take up specific instruments, melodious but loud.  We need brass, for ‘trumpets and the sound of the horn’ are demanded, and quite right too.  Enjoy the moment.  There’s (another) wonderful U.A.Fanthorpe poem  BC:AD  about this exact moment.

Refreshing the familiar

All the psalms for Christmas are familiar ones, which recur throughout the year, because they are calls to praise.  The Response and the Alleluia verses are often the only part that is specifically Christmassy.  This is good because it helps us to remember that we are meant to be singing these joyful words all year round, but they should have a fresh immediacy at the Christmas masses.  It’s happening right now, this event which causes us to rejoice for all the rest of the year, this event which makes our hearts dance as we sing the Christmas music.  Remember that carols were dances as well as songs, and sing them that way.  Merry Christmas.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Christmas dancing, about 1300 AD. Note the little hop : that’s my counter-rhythm!

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe writes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.