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 youth homeless shelter and the 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.