By Tim Wyatt
The Christian season of Advent is officially here, and in normal years with it a blizzard of services over the next three weeks in the lead-up to Christmas.
The coronavirus pandemic has, however, put paid to many plans, with caps on numbers, facemasks and singing bans making much of the traditional Christmas build-up impossible.
But many churches are still planning to make the best of it, despite the restrictions.
What is Advent?
Advent is derived from the Latin word that means “coming” — it is the season in the church calendar when Christians traditionally prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus on Christmas Day.
Historically, Advent was understood as a quiet season of waiting, reflecting amid the darkness of the world, and looking forward to hope and light arriving at Christmas time, which in the liturgical calendar does not formally begin until 24 December. Some more traditionally minded churches and Christians will still not put up festive decorations or sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve to adhere to the more austere, reflective tone of Advent.
However, in modern times and for most believers Advent has gradually evolved to become more focused on celebration and anticipating the joys of Christmas.
Many churches across different denominations have developed traditions of holding numerous special services throughout December.
Probably the most popular and most common kind of season service is a carol service, familiar with millions of Britons including many who may never normally attend church.
These services vary widely, but would typically include the singing of several traditional Christmas carols, interspersed with readings from the Bible, retellings of the Christmas story, musical and choral performances and sometimes short sermons or talks. They are normally held in the evening, sometimes by candlelight.
The contemporary carol service can in part be traced back to innovations by Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson, who, as Bishop of Truro from 1877 to 1882, created the now-famous format of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve 1880. The service — which includes nine short readings from the Bible interspersed with carols — is today most tightly associated with a service broadcast each year from King’s College, Cambridge.
Many more informal Christian traditions have attempted to make the carol service more relaxed and outward-focused in recent years, offering worshippers mince pies and mulled wine before or after the service and aiming any preaching at those unfamiliar with Christianity or churchgoing.
A Christingle service is held specifically for children on one of the four Sundays of Advent. It uses craft to engage youngsters with the Christmas story and to impart the key themes of the Christian message.
It was invented by German believers in the Moravian tradition (an old Protestant church born out of the Reformation) in the 18th century and introduced to Britain by the Church of England Children’s Society in the 1960s.
The centre of the service is the “Christingle” itself, an orange with a red ribbon tied around it and topped with a lighted candle. Sweets are placed on the end of four cocktail sticks, which are then stuck into the orange.
During the service children are walked through how to construct the Christingle and told what each element represents. The orange is the world which God made, the sweets stand for the good things in God’s creation, the red ribbon symbolises Jesus’s blood which he shed on the cross because of his love for all, and the candle represents Jesus bringing light into the darkness.
Also popular with children, a nativity or crib service centres around an amateur drama retelling of the Christmas story. They are sometimes put on by churches in collaboration with a local school or nursery.
Children volunteer to take on different characters in the story, normally including at a minimum, Mary (mother of Jesus), Joseph (her husband), the angel Gabriel (who is sent by God to tell Mary she will give birth to Jesus), shepherds (who are told by other angels when Jesus is born to go and worship him) and wise men/kings (who come from overseas to worship Jesus after his birth and bring him gifts).
Youngsters are often also encouraged to dress up as their characters, and there is often singing of carols and short, simple Bible readings as well.
Historically, midnight mass was the first service of the liturgical season of Christmas proper and was held at midnight on 24 December as Advent ends and Christmas begins.
Today, most churches start the service earlier, at 10pm or 11pm often, and they act as a vigil ending with midnight and the first moments of Christmas morning.
The service often resembles a short carol service, with singing, Bible readings and a brief sermon or talk. Uniquely among Christmas services, midnight mass includes the sharing of communion (also known as the Eucharist), where believers eat bread and drink wine together to commemorate and participate in Jesus’s death on the cross.
Celebrating communion at Christmas time is intended in part to remind worshippers to look beyond Christmas to Easter, and the purpose of Jesus’s coming into the world.
What are the current rules for church services?
Since the English national lockdown ended on 2 December, communal worship has been permitted to restart in person, although churches must ensure each household is socially distanced from others and masks worn. Vicars, pastors and ministers are also encouraged by the government to keep services as short as possible and prevent congregants from mingling before or afterwards. Singing, including choirs, is allowed if necessary but with as few performers as possible and with large gaps between singers and the audience. Congregations are not allowed to join in with any singing indoors.
In Scotland, attendance at church services is capped at 20 for the highest level of restrictions, and 50 for the next tier down. In addition, similar rules around two-metre distancing and singing are also imposed.
In Wales, the same rules apply as in England, with an additional cap on the number of people joining in any outdoor service of 30.
In Northern Ireland, a lockdown is in place until 10 December. After that, places of worship will be able to host services — at present the are only open for private, individual prayer. From 11 December, churches will return to the previous rules, which include social distancing but unlike Great Britain do not require compulsory face masks or forbid congregational singing.
All four countries of the UK have agreed that from 23-27 December their normal Covid rules will be relaxed so that up to three households can meet indoors, and go to any religious services together
What’s the programme?
Despite the restrictions making many traditional Christmas services difficult, most churches are still offering some kind of programme this December.
The Church of England has launched its own Christmas campaign called Comfort and Joy, based around online services and reflections and toned down to reflect the more sombre mood this year amid the pandemic.
Some of the famous services will still take place, including the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. This will be broadcast on BBC2 on Christmas Eve, but was pre-recorded with no audience and the choir socially distanced.
There will also be cathedral crib, midnight mass and Christmas Day services broadcast on radio and TV, which will include some congregations.
Although churches are now holding in-person as normal on Sundays again, this could pose problems on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as the larger three-household bubbles are expected to see a surge in numbers of those wanting to come, complicating efforts to keep people two metres apart.
Some parishes are holding solely online worship to cater for increased numbers, and there are also a number of carol and choral services that will also be streamed via the internet across Britain.
For those who are holding physical services, the Church of England has issued guidance recommending strict seat-booking systems in advance, considering outdoor carol singing, and keeping services as short as possible. Its website, AChurchNearYou.com, features more than 9,600 church Christmas events and a postcode tracker to find those taking place nearest to where you live.
Carol services historically often also use the opportunity of unusually large congregations to raise money for charity — this year Macmillan Cancer Support has organised its own celebrity-led Nine Lessons and Carols which will be broadcast online.
The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is offering the faithful a podcast featuring a full reading of Mark’s Gospel, an online advent calendar, and five films on various ways God can call people to different vocations in life.
Many other denominations have produced resources for online Christingles, carol services and more.