In the book The Story of Christian Music(Fortress Press, 1992, ISBN 0-8006-3474-8), author Andrew Wilson-Dickson shares an eyewitness account written by deacon Paul Gerhardt, of a Christmas morning worship service at the Nikolaikirke (St. Nicholas Church) in Berlin in 1659. The Nikolaikirke is one of Berlin’s oldest churches dating back to the thirteenth century. Here’s a glimpse into a Christmas worship service from three hundred years ago:
The church is cold. Candles are being lighted. The people are coming and taking their places. A group of schoolboys is at one side of the gallery and a choir of mixed voices at the other side. Below the pulpit we see a Collegium Musicum, a voluntary musical society composed of tradesmen and craftsmen, who perform on violins and woodwind instruments, gathered around a small moveable organ. Then there is a male quartet, also a military band with trumpets, kettledrums and drums.
After the organ prelude a chorale [Lutheran Hymn] is sung . . . Now three clergymen with white clergymen’s bands and black robes have appeared at the altar. The entire liturgy is sung in Latin [the use of Latin or German varied from place to place] by the choirs and the schoolchildren. Next a college student, dressed as an angel with large white wings, sings from the pulpit an Old Testament prophecy, accompanied by the Collegium Musicum below.
More chanting from the altar, and then the principal door of the church opens, and in comes a procession of girls, headed by the teacher, all dressed as angels. They proceed to the high altar, where the teacher sings from the first verse of “Vom Himmel hock”[From Heaven Above], and the second verse is sung by the girls in two-part counterpoint. The third verse is taken by the organ and the choir in the gallery as a beautiful five-part motet. While the procession has been marching down the aisle, one of the ministers chants a “Gloria” answered by the electoral court-and-field of trumpeters with fanfares and drumrolls.
After the sermon there is more chanting by the liturgist, and the instrumentalists play a boisterous “Te Deum” [To God]. Then follows another Latin anthem by the school children.
Things now begin to happen in the organ loft: over the railing is raised a cradle with a doll, while some boys with incessant mooing imitate the animals in the Bethlehem stable. The choir and congregation sing a hymn, and at this point high up on the organ facade a Bethlehem star, illuminated and supplied with small bells, is turned round and round, operated by an organ stop. Three wooden images, representing the three Wise Men, with their traditional attributes, solemnly move forward and bow before the doll in the cradle. At the same time we notice two puppets, representing Moors, standing on each side of the central group. One blows a trumpet, and the other beats a drum. Throughout this scene on the gallery railing the Collegium Musicum plays a ritornello [an instrumental refrain].
A boy soprano intones “In Dulci Jubilo” [Good Christian Men, Rejoice], which is continued by male voices, accompanied by shawms, and bombards. The song is scarcely over before a sight exceedingly beloved of the children appears in the centre aisle. It is old Father Christmas himself in his white beard, with pointed cap on his head and a large sack on his back, soon surrounded by ‘angels’ and children, who vie with each other for the good things that are to be given out. When the large sack is empty and Old Father Christmas has disappeared behind the sacristy door, then is sung as the closing chorale “Puer natue est Bethlehem” [A Child is Born in Bethlehem].
quoted from The Story of Christian Music, page 89.
In your celebrations this year, be grateful for the coming of Jesus Christ. He no longer is the babe in the manger, but our triumphant Lord and Savior who has conquered death and the grave. Hallelujah!