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An English Christmas

Published: 24th December 2020

An account from Stephen Gerhard Stehli from Magdeburg, Germany who spent last Christmas in Worcester having always wanted to experience an “English” Christmas.

When I grew up in New York in the USA fifty years ago, we celebrated Christmas with the rest of our family and friends according to German tradition, with German songs and German customs. American Christmas is often more colourful and louder, but goes back in many ways to the old English Christmas traditions. 

It’s always been my wish to spend a whole Christmas at an English cathedral. So I was overjoyed when the dean of our partner cathedral in Worcester, Peter Atkinson, invited me to spend Christmas with his family and cathedral. I was there from the Saturday before the 4th Sunday in Advent in 2019 and my report describes a time without any pandemic restrictions! A time that will hopefully come back for all of us very soon. 

I’ve always been a fan of English choral music and a Christmas at Worcester Cathedral is all about music. A lot of music. During the entire Advent season, many church and secular institutions, schools, associations and the city of Worcester hold their own annual Christmas carol services. There are also many different Christmas concerts put on by the cathedral choirs as well as other choirs from Worcester and the surrounding area from the end of November onwards. Only at the services themselves, such as the main service on Sunday and the daily evensong, do the cathedral choir adhere to the separation of Advent music and Christmas carols. 

During Advent, there are dozens of Christmas trees in the cloisters, designed by a wide variety of associations and charitable groups, and there is also an annual Christmas Fayre. Everything naturally attracts a lot of people.

Shortly before Christmas Eve, the Cathedral Choir carol services take place in the cathedral. These are very well attended, in which the entire cathedral chapter take part. There are lots of music, readings and very short sermons. Sermons in Worcester are generally shorter than ours, ten minutes is the rule at festive services, if possible! I had the honour to preach at a service. 

Two Crib Services in the afternoon on Christmas Eve are also very well attended. Half of the main nave is emptied of seating and many hundreds of children sit on the floor, while one of the chapter leads the congregation through a rather lively nativity play, with the performers being mainly young people and adults of the cathedral community and live animals! Real shepherds bring a small flock of sheep into the cathedral, Mary and Joseph have a live donkey with them (camels were considered, but were too expensive!). Children and adults are very happy to see the animals, and the vergers are prepared behind the pillars with a bucket and shovel ready in case of a minor or major mishap.

During the story of the birth of Jesus, the children were asked to turn around briefly, and Mary exchanged the “pregnancy belly pillow” for the baby Jesus that was handed to her in the “stable”, in both cases a baby a few weeks old, one being the dean's first granddaughter. Both survived their first “appearance” sleeping blissfully and everyone was enthusiastic. The atmosphere here was particularly lively and cheerful. 

The main services of the entire Christmas festival were the midnight mass and the service on Christmas morning, both with a full liturgical programme, including extensive choral music, readings, Holy Communion and sermons by Bishop John Inge and Dean Peter Atkinson. 

"Glory to God in the highest" shaped these days quite extensively!

Dean Peter and his wife have three grown up children, who were all present with their partners, plus the grandmother and granddaughter - and the visitor from Germany!

On Christmas Day of course there was the traditional turkey with all the trimmings and Christmas pudding, masterfully prepared by Peter’s wife, Lynne. Presents were exchanged on Christmas Day and, of course, much, much conversation was had. 

Another surprise was a second holiday, the day after Christmas - Boxing Day, on which the cathedral holds just a simple morning and evening prayer without a choir. The day is all about relaxing, turkey leftovers, playing games, and family time. My host family gathered around the television for a ghost story on the TV that evening. Yes, it was all very English! Wonderful!

The English Christmas was a special experience, comprehensive and fulfilling. Many things are of course similar, but some things are also different. In addition to the wonderful liturgy in the sublime Cathedral with magnificent music. My visit was a very special one, especially the warm hospitality that I was able to experience from Peter, Lynne and their whole family. It is not common to include someone “foreign” so comprehensively in the family celebration for Christmas and I am very grateful for this. It was really a “Very Happy Christmas” in “Merry Old England”!

Stephen Gerhard Stehli, 2019

Page last updated: Thursday 24th December 2020 8:06 AM
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