A few weeks ago, I received an email from a music director asking for ideas and suggestions for a Christmas program for her small adult church choir.
I had already planned to write this post sometime later this month, so I thought I'd share my thoughts and ideas now, in case some of you have the same questions.
Also, I'm using this post to kick-off a mini "Christmas in August" series, so grab a cup of hot chocolate (or iced mocha) and enjoy!
The first step in planning a Christmas program, I think, is choosing a format. What kind of Christmas program will this be? What resources are available to you? Who will participate?
Here are three formats you might consider:
Cantatas + Musicals
With cantatas or musicals, the music is the focus, woven together with a story or narrative that is told throughout. Here are a few examples:
If you have a smaller choir, you might consider a smaller-scale production and something with simpler part-writing. Lillenas has several (more contemporary) unison/2-part mini musicals. Each one features 5 songs with narration, about 15-18 minutes in length (total). Here are a few links:
Create your own mini cantata or musical by choosing five anthems or carol arrangements and inserting narration or story-telling in between. Choose music that helps tell the story. Bonus points if you underscore the spoken sections with music that leads into the next piece!
Plays + Skits
With plays and skits, the focus is often on retelling the Christmas story (sometimes, a more modern retelling). This is a great way to include congregation members of all ages who may or may not sing or play musical instruments. The choir and/or congregation may sing anthems, hymns, or carols in between scenes.
Here is a very simple script you can use to get started. Make it your own by creating scenes, adding musical cues/sound effects, adding costumes and props, or updating the text to make it more modern.
Lessons and Carols
Perhaps the most traditional Christmas program format, the Lessons and Carols model dates back to the late 19th century (source). The well-known Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College Chapel began in 1918 and continues to this day. The King's College Chapel service always begins with "Once in Royal David's City" and incorporates a new composition, incorporating both choral anthems and congregational hymns and carols.
Many composers/arrangers have created their own Lessons and Carols services, based on this model. Here are a few worth mentioning:
Festival of Lessons and Carols (Leavitt)
SATB choir with optional chamber orchestra, handbells, and congregation (30 minutes)
A Festival of Lessons and Carols (Hopson)
SATB choir, congregation and organ, with optional instrumental parts (strings, handbells and percussion) (40 minutes)
Festival of Carols (Martin)
SATB choir with optional congregation, children's choir, and handbells featuring new music and updated readings
Festival of Lessons and Carols (Willcocks)
SATB choir and congregation with organ and optional instrumental parts (50 minutes)
Sing We Now of Christmas (Helvey)
SATB choir and congregation (flexible; 35-55 minutes)
Write Your Own
Write your own lessons and carols service using your favorite choral anthems and congregational hymns, interspersed with the traditional readings. St. James Music Press has a few templates you can use to get started (Advent and Christmas). Or, plan a simple program with readings and congregational carols, as outlined in this sample from PCUSA or this one from Discipleship Ministries.
Here are a few other examples:
Create a Christmas program tailored to the people and resources available to you. Choose a theme (here are a few ideas) and select anthems and/or hymns that work well together and provide contrast. Here are some of my favorites:
How Far is it to Bethlehem? (arr. Hayes) (SAB, SATB)
Lo, How a Rose (arr. Helvey) (SATB)
Of the Father’s Love Begotten (arr. Rouse) (SATB)
Sing We Noel (Goemanne) (SATB)
Speaking Love (Danyew) (SATB)
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (Miller) (SAB)
Love Came Down at Christmas (Pote) (SAB, SATB)
Silent Night (Anglea) (SATB)
Sweetest Music, Softly Stealing (Hagenberg) (SATB)
Thou Who Wast Rich (arr. Ijames) (SATB)
Wake, O My Soul (Danyew) (SATB)
The Yearning (Courtney) (SATB)
If you have a small choir, here are a few unison/2-part anthems that might work:
Angels We Have Heard on High (arr. Manor) (unison)
Angels’ Carol (Rutter) (2-part)
Prayer for Peace (Cherwien) (2-part)
Dona Nobis Pacem (Lightfoot) (2-part)
Good Christian Friends, Rejoice (arr. Manor) (unison/2-part)
Joy to the World (arr. Patterson) (unison/2-part)
What Child Is This? (Malvar-Keylock/Friedersdorf) (unison/2-part)
Walk in the Light (Thomas) (unison/2-part)
Alternate musical selections and Scripture readings, poetry, prayers, or book excerpts, or write your own simple narration (or identify someone in your church who has this gift) based on the text of the music and hymns/carols you choose.
A few considerations
Add variety. Choose some pieces of music for your choir(s), and add in a few instrumental pieces, solos, a piece for handbells, congregational singing etc. If your church is small with limited resources, consider using orchestral accompaniment tracks for an added special effect. If you have a capable instrumentalist (or several!) - flute, trumpet, saxophone, violin, oboe, etc. - consider adding an instrumental obbligato on a few familiar carols. Choose an anthem for the women of your choir to sing alone and one for the men to sing alone.
Mix up the format. You might choose to do a traditional lessons-and-carols format, which I love, or you could choose music based around a central theme, such as light, peace, carols from around the world, etc. Mix it up from year to year. Consider doing a shorter program (15-20 minutes) in the middle of the service. Another option is to combine with another local church choir and do an afternoon program sometime during the month of December.
Create visual interest. Plan some sort of processional (a hymn or repetitive anthem that the choir can sing as they process in or a handbell processional - here’s a free one for 16 bells). Have children reenact the nativity scene during a particular anthem or carol. Surround the congregation for a prayer or quiet carol. Use banners, streamers, candles, handbells, etc. Here are a few other ideas.
Have you ever written your own Christmas program? If not, would you ever consider it?
10 Theme Ideas for Your Next Choir Program
Poems and Readings for Christmas
How to Write Your Own Handbell Processional
How to Choose Music for Your Choir: An Inside Look at My Process