Some years ago I researched and wrote this history of the Christmas Eve service at Lititz Moravian Church and have updated it as needed. In recent weeks I've had occasion to share it with several folks and have decided that the easiest way to make it available is to post it here on my blog.
The History of the Lititz Moravian Congregation records that, just a few months after the village was named in 1756, the small group of Lititz brothers and sisters living in the Pilgerhaus celebrated Christmas Eve by holding a Lovefeast. From that humble beginning has evolved an elaborate worship service beloved by all who participate and attend. The congregation presents the service six times each year during the weeks before Christmas as a gift to the community.
Research into the history of the service, popularly termed the Christmas Vigil, yields fascinating results. More than thirty odes (the order of service with hymns, anthems, and scripture readings) designated for Christmas Eve can be found in the church archives. The earliest, dated 1765, is an eight-page printed folder detailing portions to be sung by two different choirs, soloists, children, and congregation. The congregation’s sections are quite short, with most of the music provided by choirs and soloists.
This pattern continues through the remainder of the eighteenth century, with the children given an increasing role as the years go on. And it is the children who, in 1792, sing for the first time in English. One of the verses they sang, “Hail Infant new-born, whom the angels adore,” is familiar to our present choir in an anthem setting by Moravian composer David Moritz Michael. This anthem is not, however, part of our current Vigil ode.
The first time that a text appears that is still used in the present ode is in 1806, when the children and choirs sang, “Praise the Lord, for on us shineth Christ, the Sun of righteousness.” It is unlikely that the hymn tune in that service was the one that we know, however, since its composer, Johann Christian Bechler, only came to Lititz in 1822. While the complete texts of hymns and anthems are printed in the odes, there is no indication of composers or tune numbers until well into the nineteenth century. Determining what the music actually sounded like is therefore a challenge for both research and educated guesswork.
There are sixteen odes extant from the first thirty years of records. Beginning in 1793, printed odes appear to have been used for three to five years before a new one was prepared. This supposition is based on a notation on the 1800 ode, penciling in 1801 and 1802 under the printed date, and on the pattern of dates on the existing folders in the archives. Between 1797 and 1877 there are twenty-two odes extant. There is then a gap of fifteen years.
The last ode which differs substantially from the present service is dated 1892. Of eleven hymns sung by the congregation, six are still used today, and a seventh marked for the choir is now a congregational hymn. The children sang “Morning Star” and “The Children’s Te Deum,” and the choir sang “Benedictus” and “Mache dich auf,” but “Thou Child Divine” had not yet entered the choir’s repertoire, and there is no indication that the service began with “Stille Nacht.” Clearly this ode was intended for reuse, for under the date on the back of the folder is the message, “Please leave this in the pew.”
The next ode in the file contains the service almost as we know it today. It is undated, but because of the poor quality of paper on which it is printed, I would guess that it was prepared during the First World War. We can thus say with some certainty that the Christmas Vigil Service at Lititz Moravian remained essentially unchanged for nearly one hundred years, until “The Children’s Te Deum” was replaced in 2012. After several years of experiment, during which no satisfactory substitute could be found, "The Children's Te Deum" was returned to its place right after the scripture reading, much to the joy of all those who had missed hearing it.
The 1944 ode introducing the Christmas stanza for “Sing Hallelujah”, written for the Lititz congregation by the Rev. Louis Huebener, at the time an Elder and choir member, is also noteworthy for the infamous “down down.” This is a typographical error repeating the final word of one line in stanza two of the hymn “Hail, Thou Wondrous Infant Stranger.” It is preserved in memory, if not in print, by the bass section of the choir. These stalwarts persist in singing the error, much to the delight of some and the annoyance of others over the years.
Sourcing tunes and texts in the current ode has been a task of both surprise and frustration. While most of the hymn texts appear in the 1908 edition of “The Liturgy and the Offices of Worship and Hymns,” three do not. I found “All glory to Immanuel’s Name” in an English Moravian hymnal printed in London in 1862, but “Go to Bethlehem with longing” and “The new-born Babe whom Mary bore” have so far defied identification. An afternoon of research in the Northern Province Archives in Bethlehem yielded no further information, so the search continues. It is possible, of course, that a Lititz pastor penned these texts specifically for the Vigils rather than taking them from a hymnal of the day.
The Moravian habit of adapting texts for specific usage is quite in evidence in the ode. The Lititz version of “Stille Nacht” differs considerably from the six original German stanzas by Joseph Mohr. And “The Children’s Te Deum” has also been substantially rewritten. The original song, with text by Josephine Pollard, was published in 1867 in a book of songs by Henry Tucker. Just three years later some anonymous Moravian rewrote the stanzas to make them more specific to Jesus’ birth and introduced the work in the Vigil service. The children have been singing the altered version, with a recent short hiatus, ever since.
As for the hymn tunes, four of them – Worship, Herrnhut, Cassel, and Batty – are chorales popular in Herrnhut in the eighteenth century. Three more – Judgment, by Christian Ignatius LaTrobe, and Splendor and Bechler, both by Johann Christian Bechler – were composed by Moravian musicians of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. Upsala II (Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele) by Johann Cruger, Seelenbräutigam (Thuringia) by Adam Drese, Tallis’ Canon by Thomas Tallis, and Vom Himmel Hoch by Valentin Schumann all predate the Moravian renewal of 1727.
Of especial interest is the Tallis’ Canon, which varies to a considerable degree from the simple chorale form found in most hymnals. While some of the canonic structure has been preserved, running eighth notes have been inserted, primarily in the soprano line, and a D sharp in the third phrase of the alto line significantly alters the harmony at that point. The version sung in the Vigil service is found only in the 1908 American Moravian hymnal referenced earlier. The composer of this stirring setting appears to have been the English Moravian clergyman and composer Christian Ignatius LaTrobe. It is ascribed to him in a tune book compiled by P. LaTrobe and printed in London in 1854.
The most recent hymn tune in the service is St. Oswald (Sychar) by John B. Dykes, a mid-nineteenth century Church of England clergyman and musician who wrote more than 300 hymn tunes, among them Nicaea, to which is sung the very familiar “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.”
While the ode and anthems remain as they were established nearly a century ago, other aspects of the Vigil Services have changed significantly. Some, such as the music for the prelude and offertory, vary on a yearly basis. These selections are dependent on the preferences of the then-current Director of Music Ministries and in recent decades have moved gradually from a program of solo organ pieces to the present-day mix of organ, instrumental, and choral works. Receiving an offering during the service is itself a fairly recent innovation. For a number of years after its introduction, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ lovely hymn prelude on “Rhosymedre”, arranged for organ and orchestra, was the standard offertory music. More recently, however, that musical selection also has been allowed to vary.
One final innovation to mention is the use of electric candles for the children’s choir. In the early years the children received a lighted candle at the end of the service. Now lighted candles are distributed to the entire congregation prior to the singing of the final two hymns. At some point, perhaps when the children’s choir began to be clothed in long robes with flowing cottas and large bows at the neck, it was deemed unsafe to permit them to have lighted candles. Thus for many years at the end of each service there was a dark spot in the front of the sanctuary where the children sat, while all around them the warm, flickering glow of beeswax candles illuminated the rest of the room.
Finally, about twenty years ago, one imaginative choir mother devised a solution. Taking small battery-operated flashlights, she painted them the color of beeswax and trimmed them with the same white cut-paper ruffles which grace all the candles. These early improvised candles have now been replaced with battery-operated candles more suitable to the task. And the children can safely share in lifting their candles high in dedication to the Savior as the final hymn of the Christmas Vigil draws to a close.
The challenge of controlling the crowd for the very popular service was ongoing. For many years attendance was restricted to congregation members, an effort that was not always successful. Tickets were first used in 1870, and in 1906, to accommodate neighbors who wanted to attend, a second service was added. In 1929 a third service made Christmas Eve a very busy time for choirs and dieners. With the addition of a fourth service, it became necessary to present two on Christmas Eve and two on the previous Saturday or Sunday evening. For a few years in the early 1980s a fifth service, held mid-week, was added to the schedule, but this proved unpopular for a number of reasons. Finally in the mid-1990s, recognizing the Christmas Eve Vigil Service as our gift to the community, the Elders established the current schedule of six identical services.