Christmas Carol Tradition Returns to Memorial Church

December 7, 2017
University Choir procession during the 108th Annual Christmas Carol Service.

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

As the holidays neared, they lifted their voices.

The 108th Annual Christmas Carol Services in the sanctuary of the Memorial Church not only celebrated the Christmas season in song, but also reflected in music the exacting times in the nation and around the world.

The Harvard University Choir performed two services to standing-room-only-audiences Dec. 10 and 12, raising more than $10,000 in collections for a local non-profit organization. The program included a blend of well-known holiday classics with more contemporary works from a distinguished roster of American and international composers.

The Harvard University Choir sings "Silent Night" during the 108th Annual Christmas Carol Service in Memorial Church. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

In setting the tone, services opened with a piece by John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) called “I Wonder as I Wander,” arranged by Steve Pilkington (b. 1952.) The program also featured one of two carols commissioned for the 108th carol service called “Hunger Carol” by Mark Miller (b. 1967), a lecturer in sacred music at Yale University, with text by New Zealand poet Shirley Murray.

“Mark has written a powerful setting of Murray’s very thought-provoking text,” said Edward Elwyn Jones, the Gund University Organist and Choirmaster in the Memorial Church. “It’s something about the zeitgeist of the moment, that while we do have a lot of usual jolly Christmas carols there is something about the more poignant selections that I think have a great resonance this year.”

This year’s carol services marked a return back to the sanctuary of the Memorial Church. Last year’s services took place in St. Paul Church, while Harvard’s historic church was under renovation.

“What a joy it is to be back home and ushering in the Christmas season with carols,” said The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, associate minister in the Memorial Church.

Choirmaster Edward Elwyn Jones conducts the University Choir during the 108th Annual Christmas Service.Choirmaster Edward Elwyn Jones conducts the University Choir during the 108th Annual Christmas Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

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. The liturgy has remained nearly unchanged from the original service, and each year begins with “Adeste, fideles” sung in Latin by the Harvard University Choir.

The singing of “Silent Night” by the congregation is also a long-standing tradition. The song is sung in both German and English in remembrance of Christmas day in 1914 when soldiers on both sides of the trenches in World War I laid down their weapons and met on the battlefield to sing the well-known carol. The Memorial Church was dedicated 85 years ago in honor of Harvard’s fallen service men and women during The Great War.


Jones said Christmas carols tap into the warm nostalgia of holidays past.

“We have a lot of associations with our childhood and these very familiar carols,” said Jones. “But within that structure is a lot of freedom of expression in the carols themselves. So, I try to program a diverse selection both in terms of time periods, in terms of countries, and I think there is something very rooting and affirming in that.”

For the 40 members of the University Choir the annual carol service is the highlight of the Fall Term. The music is challenging and the hours of rehearsals come at a time when students are preparing final term papers and projects for classes.

Cara Jacobson '18 (second from the left), a coral fellow and choir secretary, sings in the Memorial room of Memorial Church.Cara Jacobson '18 (second from the left), a choral fellow and choir secretary, sings in the Memorial room of Memorial Church during the carol service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Cara Jacobson ’18, a choral fellow and choir secretary, said the service is a highly-rewarding experience.

“To me, the carol service is one of Harvard's most wonderful traditions. It brings our community together for a joyful celebration with beautiful music,” she said. “We have been rehearsing for many months and are extremely excited to share this holiday experience with the Harvard community.”

Each year, members of the choir take up a collection at the end of the services to benefit a local charity. This year’s collections raised $10,328.53 for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.