My family typically spends Christmas Eve with my in-laws. They have some wonderful traditions which make Christmas Eve a celebration of not just the coming of Jesus, but the joys of familial relationships as well. My father-in-law typically makes a delicious ham that my son declares is better even than anything at Thanksgiving. My family usually takes cheesy potatoes and seven layer dip. There is even a delicious sherbet-and-Sprite ice cream concoction to drink. Pajamas are gifted and games are played. It’s a wonderful way to spend the evening.
There is one other tradition that, this year, I found to be striking, though not in the intended way, I’m sure. During the evening’s festivities, after dinner but before any presents are exchanged, my father-in-law plays a nativity video from lds.org. This year he played one called “A Gift to the World”, which portrays the angel appearing to Mary and Joseph, their travel to Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth, the appearance of the angel to the shepherds, and the shepherds’ visit to worship Jesus. I’m sure it is supposed to be touching, but I found it to be banal and sanitary. I think I’ve sat through more emotionally stimulating HR training videos at work. The acting is stilted and lines are delivered in a lifeless, monotone manner. How can a subject so triumphant and celebratory be delivered in such a bland way?
Contrasting that boring video was my experience in my local ward earlier that morning. Our ward combined with another one in the stake to hold a one hour sacrament meeting. The agenda: a performance by the ward choir. No speakers, announcements, or ward business – just administration of the sacrament and singing.
One of the choir numbers involved the entire congregation (it was a packed house) and choir singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. Both the piano and organ were played together with gusto, with everyone singing in full force. It was probably the most touching and amazing rendition of the song I’ve ever heard, made especially powerful by the fact that it was a bunch of amateurs – neighbors, in fact – singing loudly together. After the meeting, many people remained behind, chatting with fellow neighbors and wishing each other a happy Christmas. Every member of my family commented on what a wonderful time it was.
Perhaps that is why I was so struck by the blandness of the institutionally-provided video later that evening. There was something magical about the communal aspect of the morning’s church service. Both performances were centered on the birth of our Savior; however, one was overshadowed by institutional sterility and stiffness, while the other glowed with the communal worship of regular people. It was the Church vs. the church, and I wish we enjoyed less of the former and more of the latter each week.