A timeless tradition: Celebrating the Moravian Christmas vigil

By on December 20, 2017

The glow of 500 candles illuminates the historic sanctuary during “Sing Hallelujah, Praise the Lord” Sunday at Lititz Moravian Church.

The Lititz Moravian Congregation began celebrating a vigil on Christmas Eve shortly after its arrival in Lancaster County in the mid-1700s. Today, nearly 300 years later, it continues to be celebrated several times each December to honor the birth of Christ in song and scripture. By the mid-1800s, the closed community was opened to guests from outside the congregation.

The vigil service is held six times each December as the church family’s gift to the community, and the sanctuary’s 500 seats are filled for each one. Thousands in Lititz and throughout Lancaster County have taken part in this beautiful, moving, and unique service. Many worshipers say it really isn’t Christmas until you are part of the vigil service with the Moravian community.

The church, with its sanctuary built in 1787 in the European style of no center aisle, has been the focal point of the congregation for more than two-and-a-half centuries and survived a devastating fire in the 1950s.

What sets this service apart from other Christian pre-Christmas celebrations is its historical roots and inclusion of a traditional lovefeast, one of several celebrated by the Moravians each year. The lovefeast mirrors an early Christian tradition of meals partaken in unity and love, as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Dieners light candles for worshipers prior to the final hymn.

Moravian dieners (German for servers), also called sacristans, are responsible for serving the lovefeast meal, as well as distributing the handmade beeswax lighted candles for the final hymn. The dieners serve a simple meal of sweet buns and coffee (or chocolate milk) midway through the service as the choir sings Christmas hymns.

The candles — some 4,000 are made by church members during the months preceding the vigil — symbolize Christ’s humanity (wax and tallow) and divinity (flame). The candles also are a reminder that Jesus is “the light of the world.”

The Moravian children’s choir sings at the Christmas vigil.

The vigil requires participation by many church members — including two pastors, the music director, choir members, musicians, dieners, candlemakers, and other volunteers — for its success. The service, which features a musical prelude, is approximately 80 minutes long and has remained relatively unchanged over the past 100 years.

The music for the prelude, which originally had been solo organ pieces, has evolved into the present day mix of organ, instrumental, and choral works, explains Marian Shatto, a member of the church and choir since 1976, who serves as editor of the Church Square Journal newsletter.

Choir member and church newsletter editor Marian Shatto.

Dr. Jeffrey Gemmell, the veteran director of music ministry, explains the service begins with the church in darkness. The first light comes from the 26-pointed Moravian star suspended above the sanctuary as the choir sings “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) to open the worship.

The Moravian choir includes 11 men and 34 women. There also are about a dozen members of the church’s junior choir. They participate in services year-round, and since mid-fall they have been learning new anthems and practicing the traditional hymns that have been part of the ode for a century.

Shatto, who is a fountain of knowledge on Moravian history, says the vigil service is inspirational and uplifting, and never gets old, even for those who have participated in it for years.

Pastor Dean Jurgen, who shepherds the congregation with Pastor Mark Breland, has been with the church for the past 11 years. He married into the congregation more than 40 years ago and attended Christmas vigil services for years before he became pastor.

“The service touches both the heart and the head and communicates a message verbally and lyrically,” Jurgeon says. “It is quite emotional for all.”

Serving buns during the Christmas vigil lovefeast.

Lititz choir member Wayne Lehman, a relative newcomer in the veteran group, has been singing at the vigil for three years. He says he was comfortable with four-part harmony and singing as a choir member at another church before joining the Moravian community.

“I had heard about the vigil, and since participating I have particularly enjoyed the strong sense of giving back to the community through the worship every year,” he says. “It has been moving.”

Describing the music itself, Gemmell says, “Although we have been singing many of these hymns for years, we interpret them with freshness and vitality that reflects the joy and energy of the season.”

He believes worshipping this way instills a feeling of history and tradition with music that touches everyone’s soul.

He explains the six services require the skills of a marathon runner. Participants agree, but would not have it any other way.

The pre-service prelude is fluid and has grown into a concert-like presentation, says Gemmell.

“While worship isn’t performance, the quality of our singing and playing needs to be the highest we can offer to God to celebrate the birth of his Son,” he explains.

The special vigil concludes with congregants holding lit candles high and singing “Sing Hallelujah, Praise the Lord” as a prayer that Christ’s light will shine in their hearts and that they will fulfill his call to be the light of the world.

If you missed the 2017 Christmas vigil and lovefeast, it is a worship service that should be on the top of your 2018 Christmas wish list. Tickets are free but necessary for admission, and are available from the church starting in late fall.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net.


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