Choir in Memorial Church.

The choir performs at Harvard Memorial Church during a prior year’s service.

Photos by Jeffrey Blackwell/Harvard University

Arts & Culture

Here they come a-caroling

6 min read

The Memorial Church and the Harvard University Choir will present a virtual Christmas Eve service

The annual Christmas carol service at Harvard stands as an unfaltering tradition for more than a century in times of peace and world war, prosperity and depression, health and pandemic, social harmony and upheaval.

On Christmas Eve, the Memorial Church and the Harvard University Choir will continue this rite of the holiday season in an online service featuring student voices recorded individually from across the country and around the world, digitally stitched together in a video performance of the seasonal carols.

“Members of the Harvard University Choir, under the direction of Edward Jones, have been working all semester to create this service,” said Stephanie Paulsell, interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. “Carol services have been held at Harvard through times of war and plague and stress, and thanks to our dedicated musicians there will be one this year as well.”

The 111th Annual Christmas Carol Service is scheduled for 5 p.m., Dec. 24 on the Memorial Church website, YouTube channel, and Facebook page. The hourlong service of readings and music is free and open to the public. Online donations will be accepted through the Phillips Brooks House Association in support of Y2Y Harvard Square youth homeless shelter and the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter for adults.

The carol service tradition dates back to 1910, established by University Organist and Choirmaster Archibald T. Davison, and Edward C. Moore, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals. Each year the service begins with “Adeste, fideles” sung in Latin by the Harvard University Choir. The singing of “Silent Night” by the choir and congregation is also a long-standing tradition.

This year’s service will retain many traditions of the past, but because of the pandemic, will be a very different experience for members of the choir, clergy and the audience. The service will include nine carols sung by the choir, four congregational hymns pulled from past years’ videos, three readings and a short sermon by  Paulsell.

The introduction of a new commissioned carol is also part of the tradition. This year, Carson Cooman ’04, research assistant and resident composer at the Memorial Church, has written a new carol, “Legend of the Little Child,” to premiere in the service.

“It will certainly have a different feel, but hopefully not a completely different experience as I think the aesthetic is the same: to celebrate through song and word the joy of the season,” said Edward Jones, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster. “And while I lament not being in communion with our singers and congregation physically, I think there are certain positives about this format.”

This unique academic year did provide an opportunity to schedule the carol service on Christmas Eve, and gave past generations of choir members an opportunity to participate in choral singing, Jones said.

“Usually, bound by Harvard’s academic calendar, we do our services towards the beginning of December, but this year we can release the service on Christmas Eve when our students can watch with their families,” he said. “Furthermore, we will include footage from previous carol services, which not only shows off the glories of a full and festive church, but makes this service truly inter-generational.”

Work on the carols service began at the beginning of fall term. Because of safety precautions instituted by the University to prevent the spread of COVID-19, members of the choir attended online rehearsals each week on Zoom. From their homes — scattered across the country and as far as the United Kingdom, France, and India — the students exercised their singing voices, learned the music, and sang their individual parts with Jones leading the sessions on piano.

Choir rehearsal.
What choir rehearsal looked like in years past.

Production of the service is a puzzle of many parts. In October and November, each choir member recorded the video and audio of their individual singing parts. The organ tracks of the carols were provided by assistant organist and choirmaster David von Behren, who used the organ at First-Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln, Neb., near where he is living during the pandemic.

The organ tracks, student recordings and the readings by clergy are being pieced together by Media Production Center to create the digital carols service video.

“Well, it’s definitely not the same as being in the choir room, but it is nice to see other people and still be able to make some music during this very weird semester when a lot of the performing arts have been so negatively impacted,” said Katharine Courtemanche ’21, choir secretary. “This carol service gave us something to work on and to look forward to. It’s lovely to keep our community going and to be able to sing together.”

During a normal academic year, members of the choir attend rehearsals twice a week in the choir room of Memorial Church, with a social “teatime” once a week in the Student Oasis. The challenge, Jones said, was maintaining a sense of community both musically and socially.

“It has obviously been hard for everyone: we all yearn to make music together,” he said. “But while rehearsing via Zoom has fairly severe limitations, there is a certain beauty in knowing that dotted around the world our choristers are singing the same piece of music at the same time. The universe’s sound waves are making the connections that our human ears cannot. It’s really quite magical.”

The Carol Service is one of the highlights of the University calendar. Each year, people line up outside Memorial Church for hours in hope of getting seat for one of the two services. Carols are also an important tradition to the members of the choir, music staff, and clergy. Choir member Rebecca Stewart, a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic Languages and Literatures in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said this year’s performance is special.

“I feel like every time I get to attend Zoom rehearsal, especially the pieces we have rehearsed before in person, I can hear the choir in my head so much more vibrantly,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful feeling. I’m just happy that I can pretend it’s still happening, but we are all just far away.”

Jones said he hopes this piece of musical tradition brings a little joy in this challenging time.

“Beloved by its members and alums, the service has given hope and sustenance to our community during the best and the worst of times,” he said. “We hope that it might provide some nourishment during this difficult period: preparing it has certainly done so for me personally, and for our amazing students.”