Christmas Oratorio

Quick: what blockbuster Baroque Christmas work begins with a volley of kettledrums and a jubilant outburst of winds and strings, all to set up a rousing choral melody that proclaims “Shout for Joy, Exult”?

If an answer doesn’t pop immediately into your mind, you’re not alone. The answer is J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and, despite its significance, it’s not often performed. Unlike Handel’s Messiah, it does not rise to the status of a pop classic. It boasts no eye-catching stories of a British King George II suddenly rising up for a chorus (“Hallelujah”); nor are you likely to find notices in your area of a “Bach Christmas-Oratorio Sing.”

Yet Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium) presents an extraordinary and rewarding musical journey through the Christmas season. And I do mean journey through the season. Cast in six individual parts, each section is actually a separate cantata designed to complement a liturgical service (Mass) across the Twelve Days of Christmas: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Second Christmas Day (the 26th), January 1, January 2, and January 6 (Epiphany).

A cantata can be defined as a relatively short work (usually 15 to 30 minutes) for chorus, soloists, and instruments that presents a specific theme. Cantatas (Latin, cantare, to sing), like oratorios, feature narrative and reflective text, and sometimes have individual characters. Texts can be secular (to celebrate a royal wedding or birthday, or a victory in battle). But the vast majority in Bach’s time had sacred words and were interwoven within the liturgy in a Sunday or festal worship service. They would support and express the theme of that service.

Thus, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a series of six cantatas that took the listener from Christmas Eve to Epiphany.

  1. Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage (Shout with glory, rise up, glorify the day). Birth and Announcement to the Shepherds.
  2. Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend (And there were shepherds in the same region). The Annunciation to the Shepherds.
  3. Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen (Ruler of Heaven, hear the murmur). Adoration of the Shepherds.
  4. Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben (Prostrate yourself with thanks, with praise). Circumcision and Naming of Jesus.
  5. Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen (Praise be to Thee, God). The Journey of the Magi.
  6. Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben (Lord, if Thy proud enemies rage). The Adoration of the Magi.

Bach Window at St. Thomas Church

Most of the six cantatas were performed at both of the Leipzig churches over which Bach presided as music director: St. Thomas Church (Thomanerkirche) and St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche). So all six parts sounded amid the rich, dark wood and stained glass of St. Thomas—some in a morning service, some in an afternoon mass. But four of the parts (I, II, IV, VI) also were presented in a second service in the radiantly light, airy St. Nicholas Church.

Does this sound complicated? It probably was, especially logistically, although Bach was used to overseeing complex music at both churches. He fulfilled this responsibility through the longest professional span of his career: a tenure of 27 years between 1723 and 1750.

It’s hard to separate Bach’s music from the locations in which he served (“The Stations of Bach”). For example, much of his greatest organ music stems from his period as Court Organist in Weimar (1708-1717). His next job at the small royal court of Köthen inspired a series of wonderful chamber music (including the Brandenburg Concerti). Why? Because his boss, the duke, adored the trendiest instrumental styles coming from Italy and France.

But when Bach came to Leipzig in 1723, his focus shifted back to sacred music. He was expected regularly to produce new cantatas for most Sunday services—a requirement that weighed more heavily on him as the years went on.

Still, a job is a job. So what would you do if you had Bach’s duties? You’d do what Bach and his contemporaries did: recycle! Pull movements from older works and rework them as needed. Today we might frown on the practice, but in Bach’s time, it was usual, necessary, and lauded when particularly successful.

And, in fact, that’s part of the brilliance of the Christmas Oratorio. He reused a lot of material while creating a coherent overall design for the total work, based around selected chorale (hymn) tunes, including one strongly featured that is better known by its Lenten words O Sacred Head Now Wounded. In fact, 14 of the more than 60 numbers of Christmas Oratorio are settings based on chorales.

You’ll discover a wealth of wonderful choral and solo numbers within each cantata, including the beautiful siciliano (Sinfonia) that opens Part II. (I’ll return to it later in the Advent Calendar.) But for me, the opening chorus of Part I shines as one of Bach’s absolute grandest compositions. Every year, on Christmas morning, I hit the “play” button for this track so often, my family finally begs me to play something else—anything else.

I hope you too will be drawn into the grandeur of Jauchzet, frohlocket, and, particularly in this clip, enjoy hearing and seeing the instruments of Bach’s period: kettle drums played by small wooden mallets (as opposed to the big poofy mallets of today’s timpani); trumpets without the modern valves (called the “Baroque trumpet”); oboes and wooden flutes without the complex series of keypads on today’s modern instruments. And, I hope people in your family will dance, dance, dance in joy to its musical proclamation: Rejoice, exalt!

A Final Note

St. Thomas Church today is renown today as “Bach’s Church.” Since 1950, Bach’s remains have been buried there directly in front of the choir. But St. Thomas Church has witnessed countless other events since the 12th century, including Martin Luther preaching in 1539 and Wagner’s baptism in 1813. World-famous too is the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir (Knabenchor), the same institution Bach long ago directed and, at times, complained about. But directing a boys’ choir never has been an easy job!


St. Nicholas Church

The St. Nicholas Church holds a different place in the heart of Leipzigers (and history). Built in the Romanesque style in the mid 12th century, it dazzles today with its white Neoclassical interior, including the green palm fronds that splay out from the tops of the glistening white & pink columns. Leipzig’s largest church, St. Nicholas was the site of the politically charged weekly “prayer services” (Friedensgebet) that helped usher in the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of Communism.

Sentimental Objects

wallyPerhaps you have a battered sentimental object that comes out only at Christmastime. Maybe it’s something that family members gently ridicule, or urge you to toss away?

Mine is a wooden toy soldier whose name, for some reason, is Wally. He’s about two feet tall, with hinged arms and legs. His paint is nicked and he no longer stands up well by himself. But I place him at the hearth every year for Christmas.

Wally holds the title of the most sentimental Christmas object in my house. That title used to belong to another object until last spring when we moved: a beloved snowman made by my mother using1950s-era foam balls and tissue paper. The snowman’s felt black hat, eyes, nose, and wry smile were gone. His tissue “snow” had yellowed to the point where even I had to admit it was just plain awful.

So rightly or wrongly, I succumbed to everyone’s begging and let him go. But Wally? He’s still with us. And he has an even a better story.

In 1985, at the end of my first semester of teaching at Southern Methodist University, I was driving home from turning in my grade sheets (think triplicate forms, carbon paper). Instead of being relieved, I felt profoundly sad. Never again would I be engaged with this particular group of talented students, studying together as we had been for sixteen weeks. I remember nearly crying.

Then, I drove past a garden shop advertising Christmas decor at 90% off. Well, who can resist that? The merchandise inside was gorgeous. Five bags of ornaments later, I was almost out the door when a wooden soldier tucked behind a flocked tree caught my eye. Ordinarily such a decoration would be too costly, but at 90% off?

Well, that’s how I acquired Wally, whose now-loose joints cause him to spend more time collapsing than standing at attention. He emerges at the end of Advent, signaling that it’s time to erect the tree. He is, if you will, our Christmas sentry.

We treasure objects like Wally because of the qualities they symbolize. Wally reminds me of a specific day when I understood just how much that first semester had meant. Years spent in libraries and practice rooms had allowed me a chance to engage in something I cherished. But Wally also symbolizes God’s ongoing grace, since those joys—teaching and learning—would be extended to me across many more decades, even unto today.

Some sentimental objects bespeak God’s grace. Other’s bespeak God’s mercy. Some objects may tell a different story—maybe one not as joyful, recalling painful memories. But they still hold a place in our hearts. We keep these objects because we still learn from them, grow with them. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

So unpack your seasonal treasures with pleasure. Take a minute and tell your children and grandchildren about them. Write something sweet about them on social media, or post them to Instagram, if you enjoy doing that. Or simply relish them over a cup of tea.

God works in mysterious ways during the season of Advent. And one path to our hearts may be through just the precious object you cradle in your hands.

A Clear Black Line

The chance to write about G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) rarely comes my way. All the more reason to take advantage of his musings on Advent.

chestertonEven a sample of his copious writings on the season could fill our entire Calendar. Christmas was his favorite season, and he found that it grew more important to him as he aged. He liked to point out that, unlike blockbuster biblical events referenced year around, such as the Exodus or the Resurrection, the Nativity has the spotlight thrown on it primarily during Christmas. And he was very clear that Christmas begins on Christmas Eve. Whether you view Christmas as festive or symbolic, he says,

. . . it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before.

But if you’re not used to this idea of keeping Advent and Christmas separate, it can be confusing. I remember attending my first Anglican service during the middle of December, years ago. In this beautiful, historic church near downtown Dallas, I expected to find a glittering Christmas tree, a lavish spread of poinsettias, and twinkly garland all in place (just as it was already in so many churches, including the one where I served as organist).

Instead, I entered an undecorated church where the stern readings focused on the Fall of Man and the prophecies of John the Baptist. We didn’t sing a single Christmas Carol. What was going on here?

Of course, I quickly found out. But I also wish I’d known more about Chesterton’s writings back then, particularly those available in a little book called The Spirit of Christmas, published in 1985 by a literary admirer, Marie Smith, who bemoaned the lack of availability of Chesterton’s writings at that time.

Chesterton, as always, minces no words . . . about anything! In an essay called “Christmas That is Coming,” he begins:

There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article.

“Dangerous.” “Disgusting.” Who else dares to write like that and still makes you smile?

I like the phrase “a quite clear black line.” Think of the instant when a thin stripe of rising sunlight spreads like a ribbon of electricity across the heavily clouded sky, pushing the dark away. Or, think of that moment of piercing relief when a lingering dread is lifted upon receipt of positive news.

The drama of demarcation at this season brings so much beauty. To take it to the extreme, consider the wonderful scene described in so many classic stories when the children return from church late on Christmas Eve. The parlor doors are flung open and they gasp at the tree, ablaze with candles and garland.

I so wished to have this experience as a child. I wanted the drama of Christmas to appear suddenly, and transform our simple house into a glittering land. I wanted there to be no process, but rather an instant unveiling of everything I hoped Christmas to be.

I didn’t understand quite how much work that takes, of course. And I also didn’t understand that the gift of Advent, to whatever degree we are able to observe it, does bring that fulfillment.

My first real observation of Advent happened not the year I entered the undecorated church, but a few years later, when my husband and I sang in a Christmas Eve Vigil of a different church. The moment came when the opening darkness was exploded by brilliant light and the clang of bells, as shouts of Gloria filled the sanctuary. And, to be fair, I also remember fondly the parish hall afterwards. It was lit by hundreds of candles and filled with tables of sweets and cocoa (many in that parish fasted during Advent). I kept thinking, “My goodness, we’ve just sung that beautiful service, and now it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and we’re having a party!”  I knew that Christmas had, indeed, come!

Explore and explain to your children the rewards of the “clear black line”—both in liturgy and life. It will help them understand why you (as a family) may be minimizing or delaying the Christmasy décor or Santa-style activities during the weeks of Advent. It will help them understand why Christmas Eve services are so important: they are not an interruption of Christmas fun, but rather a moment for the brilliant light of Christmas to spread across the sky. From dark to light. From anticipation to awe.

Advent II – Repetition


Today, the second Sunday of Advent, we return to our wreath and repeat the basics of our candle-lighting ceremony. So much of today’s culture celebrates the new, the spontaneous, the unexpected. Repetition sounds dull, almost a consequence of having failed at our first attempt to do something.

Yet repetition is a key ingredient of art, life, and worship. In galleries across the world, serious students of art set up their easels and spend days copying paintings, gleaning the techniques of the masters. Music students learn to identify musical form by analyzing the patterns of repetition, variation, and contrast. The repetitions of a poem’s rhyme scheme delight the ear. For that matter, one of the early milestones for children comes when they learn to play matching games—games that depend on patterns of repetition.

More fundamentally, our lives in worship are lived in a series of repetitions. We honor God’s commandment with the seven-day week and a repeated observance of the Sabbath. We rejoice each year at Christmas to repeat those traditions that we find most meaningful, to tell the same story, to place the same Nativity Scene in its honored spot, to prepare the same holiday menus.

And so we repeat the ceremony of the Advent wreath by lighting of the second candle, traditionally performed by the oldest child. He or she first lights the purple candle that was lit on week one, and then lights a second, purple candle. It is a repetition of last week with a new variation. Liturgical cycles have specific readings associated with this Sunday. If you do not follow a set Lectionary, you might read Isaiah 40:1-11.

And yes, there are prayers designed for this occasion, such as this one:

Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Encourage all of your children to participate in this ceremony through the readings or adding their own prayers. Look through the section of Advent hymns in your hymnal and explore one new to you. If you’re not confident with the singing, there are many resources now on line that will play the hymn tune for you. Or treat the hymn for what it is (a poetic text) and have members of the family read it as a poem.

Emphasize that, in observing the second Sunday in Advent, you unite with millions of Christians going back centuries. It is a repetition, but also something new. Why? Because it is being done by you. You are repeating not just a series of action, but rejoicing in an act of substance and beauty. Your children will mark this well and remember those things you honor by repetition.

Image: Second Sunday in Advent, onnola (CC BY-SA 2.0)



James (CC BY­SA 2.0)

It’s a perfect weekend for baking. So let’s go to Germany and learn more about their favorite traditional holiday treat: Lebkuchen.

Mmm, mmm. Smells good, doesn’t it? Cloves, ginger, cinnamon: the seasonal spices are in the air. And that takes me back to one of my favorite treats: Lebkuchen. I’ll confess it. My two favorite sweets are Marzipan-Kartoffeln (marzipan made to look like tiny potatoes) and German Lebkuchen. I’ll leave marzipan potatoes for another day because Lebkuchen is squarely on my mind today.

Lebkuchen is a dense, spiced German cookie that appears in stores in mid-November. Increasingly, you find it in U.S. shops too, which delights me. But when you find it, keep in mind, Lebkuchen is seasonal—baked for a specific holiday period, so it is (or should be) free of preservatives. That means it has a short shelf life.

“Seasonal” is a hard concept for us here in the U.S. where we revolve around a 24/7, twelve-month a year system. But try to imagine going to buy, say, Oreos and finding out that they’re available only in November and December. Or learning that Oreos stay fresh only a few weeks. Wait! Oreos never last more than a few days, do they?

But still, try to imagine. Because the lack of availability is part of what enhances an item. Looking forward to the seasonal appearance of special treats makes them far more delicious when they finally appear. Expectation, anticipation: such old concepts that run counter to our modern culture. But isn’t that also one of the reasons people are attracted to the flavor palate of Christmas?

Most of us grew up with Lebkuchen’s cousin, gingerbread. We’ll look at the difference in a minute. But first, let’s explore the etymology of Lebkuchen whose name derives from roots as varied as Leben (life), Leibe (body), Laib (loaf), or lebbe (super-sweet).

The Kuchen part definitely means “cake.” But usually we find Lebkuchen cut into a firm, round cookie or oblong bar. The dough is intensely flavored by various combinations of molasses, honey, cinnamon, cloves, cardamon, coriander, aniseed, allspice, nutmeg, lemon zest, and hazelnuts. It is then pressed onto white or cream-colored sheets called Oblaten. These serve as wafer-thin bottoms for the cookie. After baking, Lebkuchen are dusted with sugar, glazed, or covered in chocolate. And that’s how most people buy them, stacked on their edges in packs of 5 or 10 and wrapped in cellophane.

Lebkuchen dough can also be mixed to be rolled out into a dense layer (c. ½ inch thick). It’s then cut into a heart shape of various sizes, suitable for hanging as a decoration. No German Advent market (Weihnachtsmarkt) is complete without the kiosks where colorfully iced Lebkuchen hearts dangle enticingly. People don’t necessarily eat these hearts; rather, they are supposed to be presented to one’s sweetheart or beloved family members.

I first encountered Lebkuchen while living in West Germany in the early 1980s. It was one of those: “Where have you been all my life” moments. Earlier, I had formed a friendship with an East German musician in Russia where we had studied together at the Leningrad Conservatory. Despite many restrictions back then, it was possible to send treats at Christmastime from West Germany to East Germany. I asked my friends what I should select. “A box of Nürnberg Lebkuchen,” they all said. Acknowledged as the best, the Lebkuchen from Nürnberg came in festive wrappings including a decorated metal box that featured a wind-up music box embedded in the bottom. This gift was most happily received and, to my surprise, the box remains a keepsake in her family, decades after the reunification of Germany.


HannaWebb (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Where does gingerbread fit in this story, especially the gingerbread men our children so love to decorate?

The word gingerbread goes back not to “bread,” as we might guess, but to a 13th-century Old-French verb meaning “to preserve with ginger” (gingenbrat). There’s actually a Latin root gingimbratus that means “something gingered.” The noun form ginginbrar was transformed through folk usage by the 14th century into ginginbrede (brede=bread). Then, by the mid 18th century, the meaning of gingerbread was amplified to mean something intricately, perhaps frivolously, decorated. English sailors were known to call the decorative carvings on a ship gingerbread-work.

Ginger, itself, is an ancient, highly prized root. Known to the Romans (zingiberi) and Greeks (zingiberis), the word for ginger dates back to Middle Indic singabera, and, from there, possibly, to Sanskrit srngaveram. In that root you find srngam (horn) joined with vera (body), describing the root’s horn-shape.

The medicinal uses of ginger are legendary. Even today ginger shows up in healing teas and, to my surprise, as a remedy in a modern venue where I frequently work: cruise ships. Yes, dishes of candied ginger are placed around the ship and they really do help, especially if one has to give a talk on rolling seas!

But the most beloved form of ginger will always be those pudgy cookie-men with dots for eyes and a wry icy smile. References to gingerbread men are recorded from the mid 19th century, although surely moms centuries earlier were fashioning cookies into such charming shapes, don’t you think? And while you can bake ginger cake, bread, and cookies any time, the fragrance and flavor will always be associated with the winter months.

If your kids are older, have them look up the differences between the recipes for Lebkuchen and gingerbread. You can read the history of Nürnberg Lebkuchen going back to the late 15th century. You’ll find alternative names (honey-cake and Pfeffernusse) and much more lore. If you have time, have a bake-off. One team can try a recipe for Lebkuchen and another can make gingerbread. Whatever the results, your home will smell fabulous.

Adam Lay Ybounden


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