St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church was built in Elora in 1842. However, I was oblivious to its existence until 1985. That year, my cousin was asked to be a candle boy in a Christmas Eve service, due to his new school’s affiliation with the church. The family faced a dilemma – should we go? We never went to church. Not on Christmas, not at any other time during the year. And Christmas Eve was for talking, eating and watching Alistair Sim – not church. But we were a small group: one uncle, one aunt, one cousin, one grandmother, one great-aunt. The decision was made; we would go to church together and then return home for our usual festivities.
That evening, the church sat in hushed darkness, only lit by candles. Uncertain expectation hovered over us. And then, the most sublime music I have ever heard, rang forth from the back of the chapel. The choir, headed by a soloist carrying a large candle on a staff, walked two by two to the front, singing “Once in Royal David’s City”. I did not know it then, but this choir is considered by some to be among the world finest professional chamber choirs. I was pierced through and through – the imprint remained – Jesus is God’s son.
For many years after my cousin had retired from the candle boy business, I continued to return to the church. My family no longer came, but tolerated my yearly Christmas pilgrimage to Elora. I became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I took my boyfriend, who became my husband. “If I’m ever in a position to make the decision,” he promised, “we will have a Christmas Eve service.”
Soon enough, the time came. In 1999, we began to plan our ward’s first Christmas Eve service. There was no pattern, no protocol, and no guidelines in the Handbook. Like the newly fallen snow that blanketed the city, there were no prints to follow. We put out feelers — “No obligation,” “Only if you don’t have other plans.” We didn’t want to rock the boat too much. Some lifelong members resisted this new idea, but converts, carrying the memories of their own Christmas pilgrimages and friends too polite to say no, rallied around the cause. Speakers were carefully selected; a primary chorus was organized, sacred music and poems were chosen with care.
And suddenly the evening was upon us. Once again, in hushed darkness, a Christmas Eve service was begun. This was not the professional service of Elora, but to me, it was beautiful in all of its Mormon-ness. It lacked finesse born from experience but not fervency. This service gathered many of the displaced of our ward – those who would otherwise be alone, those who were far from family, those who had been set at variance against their parents and taken up their crosses – all gathered together to celebrate the birth of the Saviour. Some were able to build bridges to their non-member families or new investigators. We lingered for awhile and then dispersed – little ones needed to go to bed, there were presents to be placed beneath the tree, some still needed to make their annual pilgrimage to Bedford Falls.
The service continued for another five years. Word spread – it might be worth attending. Our numbers grew, our planning was refined, our worship made more holy.
But it was only to be for a brief season. Now with new leadership, the ward Christmas Eve service is no more. However, the sweet memory remains. Tonight I will resume my pilgrimage to St. John’s. I will not kneel before the priest for wafer and wine, but am honoured to raise my voice in song and commune in silent prayer with others who seek a worship service on this night of nights.
As we watched at dead of night,
Lo, we saw a wondrous light;
Angels singing peace on earth,
Told us of the Savior’s birth.
Hail, thou ever blessed morn,
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn,
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.