Festival of Lessons and Carols: The Southern Oxford Experience

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By Taylor Lanier

Contributing Writer

Photo from University of the South Flickr

The weekend of December 3 and 4 on the typically debaucherous Domain brought warm and festive tidings to the University and community at large. Moments before the commencement of the 57th annual Festival of Lessons and Carols, Sewanee Angels joyfully tossed boxes of tissues overhead and distributed cough drops to the tightly packed Congregation of All Saint’s Chapel.

    It seems most appropriate that the British tradition of the Nine Lessons and Carols be celebrated at the “Oxford of the South”. The Festival Service is the most anticipated event on campus during the culmination of the Advent Season, and has become a bit of an institution. Thanks to the speakers for reciting the nine Lessons, the University Choir for performing the hymns and carols, and the Chancel Party for performing the logistical and liturgical services, the 57th year was a smashing and completely booked success.

    A moment of silence passed in the darkness as the thurifer of the All Saints Sacristans’ Guild dispensed the potent incense with the swing of his thurible, centering and connecting the Congregation as one. The Chapel was adorned with greenery, poinsettias, and hydrangeas collected and arranged with care by members of the Sewanee community, and no one could miss the Advent wreath pouring out its gorgeous foliage from above. Even a bird’s nest was spotted, intact among the fern and holly. Everything felt straight out of a Rick Steve’s European Christmas Special, but we thank Sewanee for the southern drawl and exchange of business cards in the interim.

    The triumphant blaring of horns carved through every hollow space in the Chapel as the choir and chancel party proceeded from the east end to the nave.

The University Choir Soprano section was magnificent in There is No Rose, an anonymous 15th Century carol that reads like a poem and sounds like a prayer. Soprano Madeline Naylor (’20) said, “It’s really easy to get into the spirit for Lessons and Carols because all of the music is so spiritual and the hymns are so triumphant, which to me is what the Christmas is about. Add brass and it’s nothing short of majestic.” The altos, tenors, and basses demonstrated their masterful range in Rorate. The final phrase, “Pro nobis puer natus est”, or “A child is born to us”, must still be ringing somewhere in the Chapel.

    Head acolyte, Austin Heerema (’17) read the seventh lesson, The shepherds go to the manger, for the 5 o’clock Sunday Service. For him, “Lessons and Carols is always an enjoyable experience, if an exhausting one.” Working around finals on top of the usual Sunday service. As a senior, Heerema added that, “It was a nostalgic experience because I’ve served at Lessons and Carols every year since coming here in 2013, and this is my last year to do it. The music and decorations were beautiful, and I hope I’ll be able to come back to Sewanee and experience the service again, if only from the congregation.”

    Isaac Sligh (C’18) of the All Saints Sacristans’ Guild, also states that, “Serving as a sacristan is a demanding job but one I nonetheless find in equal measure incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.”

    When the entire Congregation joined in the final hymn, O Come, all ye faithful, the maximum spirit of the season shone through. A song commonly shared is a portal to every soul, one that members of the Sewanee community joined in despite the issues that ardently divide us today. One enthusiastic passerby exclaimed, “I cannot wait until next year!” He must have spoken for us all.

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