Lauren MacRae is Head of Content and English private instructor at 69English
The UK has a long history of being connected to Christianity over centuries yet Britain is no longer a nation of churchgoers. However, it seems that the one time during the year that people are willing to go is at Christmas when the festive services take place. Why is this? What takes place during services at Christmas that attracts people who would not be willing to go at another time during the year? In this article I will investigate these questions and the UK’s rich Christian based Christian traditions.
In the UK the Church of England is synonymous with Christmas services. The liturgy, music, atmosphere and candlelit buildings attract many people who are not regular churchgoers and the services are inclusive. The traditional Christmas services’ popularity is well noted and recorded and is on the increase; according to statistics compiled by the state church some 2.6 million people visited Church of England churches at Christmas 2016. However, you may not know that there are in fact different types of Christmas services which attract different types of people as I will explain below.
-The Midnight Mass-
The service that seems to be growing in popularity in Anglican churches is the Midnight Mass. Although this tradition has long been a staple at Catholic churches, it is only really in the last 60 years that the Church of England churches have adopted this service. This service is meant to concentrate on the Eucharist, the celebration of communion (sharing bread and wine to commemorate the death of Christ).
However, according to The Times, “only about a third of Christmas churchgoers actually receive communion. This may well be because many people are not familiar with this practice or do not feel worthy to receive it. Interestingly, when churches have tried to change the service to modernise it and make it less traditional, it has been met with resistance.
For example, at St Chad’s, Lichfield, when they tried to do this, complaints were made about the lack of traditional Christmas carols and people didn’t like “the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer.”
It seems that the British really are a nation of traditionalists but also are very nostalgic too. Such services hark back to Childhood and seem to convey a special atmosphere to the festivities. There is also a lot of comfort in the familiar words and music and I think that draws people in. I think the Midnight Mass also has an air of mystery about it that adds an almost magical note to Christmas even for those who are sceptical about the Christian faith or atheists.
-Christmas Eve carol services-
As for the earlier Christmas Eve Christmas Carol services, these can be much more gentle and middle-of-the-road options for those who are more nervous about venturing into a church. They are also a much better bet for those with small children. At least in the Church of England they tend to be more liberal in tone and consist of Christmas carols with traditional readings and a short sermon about the Christian message. The most famous example of this is the service broadcast by the BBC from King’s College, Cambridge each year.
-Civil & Christingle services in the Anglican Church-
The Anglican Church also plays host to civic services and nativity/Christingle services which are very well attended; In 2016 “2.8 million people attended special services for civic organisations and schools”. The Christingle service, which means ‘Christ light’, celebrates Jesus as light of the world and is an advent service. A Christingle is made up of an orange (which stands for the world) with a candle pushed into the middle (symbolising Jesus as light of the world) with a red ribbon around it (representing Christ’s blood) and dried fruits on cocktail sticks pushed into the orange (symbolising the fruits of the earth and the four seasons.
Church services in non-Church of England churches tend to be more informal affairs, although you will still see the traditional carols and readings. But you may see a worship group or band in more charismatic services or people giving testimonies of how they became a Christian or what Jesus means to them. Sermons are longer and more thought-provoking. It is highly unlikely that you can remain anonymous and not noticed in such services, whereas you may be able to slip in and out of an Anglican service. Attendance in these services is also on the increase.
In conclusion, for millions of Brits going to church is still part of their Christmas festivities and still holds a place in their affections. The nostalgia for many is tangible and the traditional music and liturgy is popular with many Christmas churchgoers. There are some Brits for whom Christmas is a special time of year for religious reasons; they are faithful Christians who believe in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and celebrate each year. Whatever the reason for going, it brings people together and is an opportunity to get away from the trappings of the commercial side of Christmas and embrace the very heart of Christmas itself.