Memories of Christmas Eve at My Church

Around the time I was in fourth grade, my parents joined the First Presbyterian Church in our hometown of Lockport, New York. We had been going to another, smaller church in town which offered wonderful sermons and great fellowship, but very little in the way of musical programs for children. This was the mid-1960’s so it wasn’t all that unusual but my mother was beginning to recognize that I had some fairly serious musical talent and there were more youth choirs and programs available at First Presbyterian.

Our new church was massive; the main sanctuary could seat over 1000 people. The original part of the church was already over 100 years old and subsequent editions over the years were linked together with narrow hallways and even some secret passageways. It was a great place to explore. I have many fond memories of going down a back staircase, its steps lumpy and uneven from the hoards of people having tromped up and down for many years, and emerging in one of the downstairs meeting rooms. The youth choir was great fun – I had longed to sing in something a bit more substantial than what was available at my elementary school. The organist was a joyously exuberant woman of immense talent – she would later become my piano teacher. I even served as an acolyte on numerous occasions.

But far and above everything else was the handbell choir. I had never seen a handbell choir until I got to First Presbyterian, and from the moment I first heard them perform I knew that I had to become a member of that magical group!

I finally did join the ranks of the bellringers when I was in high school. If you’ve never heard a bell choir perform, then you need to get to YouTube and find out what you’ve been missing. Bells add a mystic touch to nearly any song but it’s truly amazing what color and life they add to Christmas songs.

First Presbyterian really got into the Christmas spirit with decorations, special concerts and events and my favorite – the Christmas Eve service. It always started at 11pm, finishing up just at the stroke of midnight. During my high school years, I not only was in the bell choir but I also sang a solo during the service. I can remember very well all the nervous anticipation leading up to that wonderful night. The bellringers wore the standard burgundy choir robes so there was no costume for me to worry about. Nonetheless, I was bouncing around before, during and after dinner until one of my parents (usually my dad) drove me into town and dropped me off at the church. I had to be there fairly early; they would come later.

The church was always noisy bedlam – the younger kids who were either singing or acting in a play were laughing and running up and down stairs; choirs were practicing, the kitchen was hopping and some small crisis was always present. It even snowed some nights, and this being Western New York, it meant thick, fluffy snow and decent accumulations on more than one occasion.

Somehow, it always came together. The sanctuary filled, the choirs sang, the bells rang clear, I did my solo and the minister delivered a moving sermon. At the conclusion of the service, the congregation sang “Silent Night” in dimmed lights without any musical accompaniment. Talk about shivers running down your back!

When the song ended, the minister gave the blessing and we heard the church bells ring in the start of Christmas day. Then the lights blazed back on and we all sang “Joy To The World” with great gusto, accompanied by our fantastic organist.

As I drove back home with my family, I marveled at our town’s winter scene – the lights, the snow that was there most years, the decorations on all the houses. I always felt that I had been a part of something special those Christmas Eves. I have attended several Christmas Eve celebrations at First Presbyterian since moving away and living in various parts of the country, and although they were very enjoyable, there’s nothing that can compare to those years of being right in the thick of it. I recently learned that one of my fellow bellringers from those days is now the musical director of the church’s vocal and handbell choirs. May the magic continue for many, many more years!

The preceding story is completely true to the best of my memory.

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