A Christmas Tradition

Bob Downing (King Herod) Casper, WY, 1985

     There was an aura of excited expectancy inside the church as the time approached 6:00 p.m. on the mid-December evening.  Choir members were nervously walking about in their robes visiting with friends or muttering their lines under their breaths. The video/soundtrack operator was praying out loud and with a certain degree of panic as he was having difficulty getting the video/soundtrack display to properly cooperate. Members and a good representation of visitors were entering the auditorium, looking for familiar pews or friends. Last minute lighting arrangements were checked and rechecked.  At the last minute, everyone began took their seats, children shushed, lights dimmed, and the pastor rose to greet the congregation. The Christmas Cantata to celebrate the Christmas Season was about to begin.
      Past Christmas Cantatas have been in the record books for a while now, and shortly after each conclusion we began to concentrate on more challenging matters such as increasing our intake of high calorie goodies.  Thankfully, it was too early to begin to think about the upcoming back to work schedule and the inevitable bills for all our Christmas purchases which began to roll in as we entered into January. Though replete with activities, expenses, and exhaustive endeavors, Christmas is still a favorite time of year when we have the opportunity to reconnect with relatives and friends, and, being so close to the end of the calendar year, we also have the occasion to review the year just past and reflect on our successes and challenges.
     In the world of Christianity, of course, it is a special time of year, equaled only perhaps by the Easter season. Although historical evidence offers clues that Jesus Christ was probably not born in December or the winter season, it is still a time, however arbitrary, that we celebrate the coming of the Savior to Earth and all the ramifications that the event means to believing Christians throughout the ages.
     With the importance of the Christmas season weighing heavily upon the organized churches, the need for some sort of special pageantry during this time of celebration became evident at a very early date. For centuries, churches have celebrated the birth of the Christchild with music, singing, and worship. Many of the greatest classical compositions from the 17th and 18th century, written by composers whose works have survived the test of time, were created to celebrate the birth of Christ. These earliest compositions, written during a period when music was created primarily for the elite and privileged, tended to be very formal, very complicated, and very restrictive…in as far as the listener was expected to enjoy the music in a quiet, hushed matter. Completion of a musical presentation was met with polite applause, and discreet congratulations were offered to the composer who was usually in attendance.
     This tradition of a musical "cantata" (a composition of a dramatic presentation along with vocal solos, choruses, and music to tell a story) to celebrate the Christmas season continues, at least in some diminishing circles, to the present day. The complexity of the presentation is generally in direct proportion to the size of the church doing the presenting, although the word “size” may refer to the quantitative number of church members or the qualitative number of skilled musicians and singers within a church body. What that means, translated into English, is that a church, though large in number, may not have the reservoir of musical talent required to present a cantata at the skill level that its member number may indicate. The opposite is true: a small church can offer a presentation far beyond its expected performance if it is blessed with a great talent pool.
     The concept of the relatively formal Christmas cantata reigned supreme in the religious world far into the 20th century. With our Pentecostal music backgrounds, Shirley and I have been involved in Christmas cantatas for over sixty years. The church we attended as youths, Peace Tabernacle in Baytown, Texas, was a relatively small church with an average attendance of around 140, but it was a church rich with musical talent. That talent was put to good use during the Christmas season, when we delved into the preparation of yet another cantata. There was always an almost perceptible groan in the audience when it would be announced around the first of November of each year that “cantata practice” would begin. We realized we had a lot of work ahead of us, but somehow as the practices slipped by the music became more meaningful and enjoyable, and the night of our presentation was always one of spiritual uplifting and fulfillment. Led by a woman who was an accomplished pianist, organist, singer, and artist, our little choir was challenged to be the best we could be. Miss Anniedeen Bateman, our leader, had perfect musical pitch and could hear our sour notes at fifty paces and made us sing it till we got it right. Anniedeen started the beloved tradition of “Anniedeen Beans,” which meant that every year after the very last practice before our big presentation, all the participants of the cantata went to Miss Anniedeen’s home and enjoyed chili and beans with French bread. That was enough to make all the work worthwhile. Little did Shirley and I know that many years later that same Miss Anniedeen Bateman would become our stepmother and step-mother-in-law respectively, although as events transpired, we both have sort of forgotten the “step” part.
     The general format of the Christmas cantata, consisting of organ, piano, choir, soloists, director, and narrator continued until the early 1970s. Presentations continued to be offered within a context of quiet, reverential dignity. But as we moved into the latter 1970s there was a “restyling” of the traditional Christmas cantata. Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m about to yell, “It’s an abomination!” please be aware that is not the case: many changes which have occurred I welcome.
     In the latter 1970s the traditional formality of the cantata began to fade. Narrators became more conversational in their deliveries; actors/singers played the parts of the main characters of the Christmas story, and the music and solos became less operatic and more appealing to the average person. That’s not to say that the music was less difficult; it simply had a broader base of appeal. Along with the change in voices and narration came a dramatic change in music. The long-held tradition of organ and piano (especially in the southern United States) gave way to other musical voices such as strings, brass, and percussion. The greatest invention to come down the pike for many smaller churches with limited musical resources was the soundtrack. Although the 8-track tape and reel-to-reel tape player had been around for some time, it was not until the cassette tape with its ease of operation came on the scene that soundtracks for practically everything were instantly available. And now with the advent of computers, CDs and DVDs (both disks now becoming obsolete) the possibilities for soundtrack presentation are limitless. For those musically uninitiated, a soundtrack offers background music for a singer or choir to follow. Suddenly, a church which didn’t even have a pianist could put on a presentation with a full orchestra if desired. There was some resistance to such electronic gadgetry from those who felt like some of the spiritual spontaneity was lost by being “controlled” by artificial music. I think in some extreme situations that was a good argument, but for a presentation like a cantata, the negative effect is minimal. I will be the first to admit, though, that, given an option, I will always prefer live, human-created music. In years past, I have seen Shirley agonize and practice on her piano for days learning a thick booklet of Christmas cantata music. There is a presence, an immediacy, evident in a live performance which does not come through a loudspeaker.
      By the mid 70s, we were attending a small church in Casper, Wyoming, where my father-in-law was pastor. By this time Miss Anniedeen Bateman had become Mrs. Anniedeen Creel and my mother-in-law. The first time we used a soundtrack I brought my stereo amplifier, cassette player, and speakers from home and we set everything up in the church. For the first time, we had electronic music for our cantata and were on the cutting edge of technology. It did not become the modus operandi for our Christmas musicals, however, because we were blessed with some very accomplished musicians in our church, so the soundtrack became an option each year but rarely used.
     It was in the latter 1970s that The Greatest Christmas Cantata of All Time was produced. Okay, that’s obviously an opinion on my part, but it’s the ONLY Christmas cantata Shirley and I listen each year, and I have already listened to it twice this season (2023). The cantata “Noel, Jesus is Born!” composed by Lanny Wolfe and Don March is a timeless classic combining traditional and contemporary compositions, powerful solos, a touch of dramatics, and thought-provoking narration. The harmony of the melodies is haunting in its beauty, and it is impossible to sit through a presentation of this musical and not feel a touch of the Christmas spirit. (Note:  It is now available on YouTube...just search Noel Jesus is Born.)  Perhaps I feel a sentimental attachment to this cantata because our church in Casper, Wyoming, performed it two years in succession, and when I hear the music, I hear my loved ones and friends sing the parts they brought to life nearly forty-five years ago. I was privileged to play the part of King Herod.  Some of those loved ones and friends have gone on to their rewards, but I still hear and see them when I listen to “Noel!". Our little group took a difficult cantata and did it well.
     Over the years Christmas performances have become more complex, at least in non-Pentecostal churches. In many Pentecostal churches, however, the opposite has occurred.  Recognizing the effort required to master a musical instrument or the vocal practice needed to master a difficult vocal presentation, we now have instrumentalists who never progress beyond striking the basic chords of a musical piece and singers who all sing soprano and never bother with alto, tenor, or bass. Apparently, decisions have been made in many churches that too much effort is required for a complicated Christmas presentation.  Throughout the years I have sung bass, tenor, solos, duets, and trios. I have been King Herod, a wise man, a shepherd, an inn keeper, or simply the program narrator.  (I even directed a choir once in Oklahoma...they were REALLY desperate.) Every year most choir members dread the beginning of practice knowing that they will be sacrificing time and effort, and every year the general feeling is that it will never "come together.” But somehow, through perhaps God’s grace, it always does “come together” and we are able to celebrate Christmas. Such has been the case every year. Every year the choir practices for weeks on end until the final nerve-racking formal night, and suddenly things just seem to fall into place. The presentation comes across powerfully, and the singers are beautifully harmonious. The Christmas cantata is not just about Christmas…it IS Christmas.  May the Christmas cantata live on.