COVID-19: Essential Information

Christus Natus Est (2019)

For more information about the artwork featured in this video, please see . 

Lessons and Carols 2020 Video

Lessons and Carols Program 2020

View program online (opens in a new window).

Join us December 20, 4:00 PM ET

The Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life and the Middlebury College Choir  present Lessons and Carols 2020 on this site as a YouTube premiere on Sunday, December 20, at 4:00 PM Easter Time USA. The program will include video and audio from the 2018 and 2019 services, which has not been available prior, as well as new contributions from readers, Mark R. Orten, and Jeff Buettner.

The College Choir and soloist Wendy Taylor '21 have also prepared a short offering to open the service, in their masked and distanced fashion as was the situation in November, before all students left campus for the final two weeks and semester break.

Offerings taken at the service are collected for donation to Addison County charities. As this program cannot be presented in person, we encourage those donations to be given directly to the organizations. Information for doing so is available below, and will be a part of the video program.

Please join us on December 20! The program will be available on this site through January 7.

Donations in 2020

Our Lessons and Carols services are free admission, but we always take an offering during the services, all of which is shared among three local organizations whose work serve people in need in our community. This offering is a hallmark of the services, and a substantial gift to these organizations.

In 2020, our capability to receive an offering is online. Information for online giving is available through the following links.

Addison County Home Health and Hospice

Addison County Home Health and Hospice provides home care services that include skilled nursing, rehabilitation services, and medical social work, as well as ancillary support services that promote healing, quality of life and independence.

Elderly Services, Inc.

For more than three decades, Elderly Services has been dedicated to promoting high quality of life for elders and to supporting elders in their efforts to live in their own homes despite frailty, chronic illness or disability.


Helping to Overcome Poverty's Effects

HOPE’s mission is to improve the lives of low income people in Addison County, Vermont, by working with individuals to identify and secure the resources needed to meet their own basic needs. Your support will help families struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Welcome and Historical Introduction

Since 1971, the Department of Music and the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life have collaborated to present an annual Lessons and Carols for Advent and Christmas service at Middlebury College.

This service is based on the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that has been celebrated every year at King’s College, Cambridge, England since 1918. Since the 1930s the King’s College service has been broadcast annually to audiences worldwide on BBC Radio. It was originally planned by Eric Milner-White, the Dean of King’s College Chapel. He had been a World War I British army chaplain, and became a liturgical pioneer who was convinced that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. Christmas Eve 1918 was a mere six weeks from the World War I armistice; nearly half of Cambridge University undergraduates had gone off to war and a third of them never came back. Thus the phrase, “all those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light,” from the bidding prayer, had particular resonance. Though the music changes each year, the backbone of the service—the prayers and lessons—has remained virtually unchanged in the Cambridge service since those days.

The first Middlebury College service took place in 1971, under the direction of Emory Fanning, Professor of Music, and Charles P. Scott, College Chaplain. They were certain that the College’s music department was up to the challenge, and that the community would welcome this colorful and moving celebration of the season. Middlebury’s Lessons and Carols was made famous by two public television specials. Christmas in Vermont: A Celebration of Lessons and Carols was filmed in 1984. And in 1988, Vermont Public Television produced A Vermont Christmas, narrated by actor Burgess Meredith and filmed on location in Middlebury and on the College’s Bread Loaf campus. Each production was rebroadcast, over several years, by over 200 public television stations nationally. Each year the offering is donated to HOPE, Elderly Services, and Addison Home Health and Hospice. Past services have raised over $4,000, a testament to the generosity of our community.

The overall format of this service provides such a rich opportunity to experience both the emotional resonance and familiarity of tradition, while each year stretching both the congregation and the choir with music that is unfamiliar or new. Over the years that blend of constancy, depth, innovation, and breadth creates a sense of anticipation and joy well suited for the Advent and Christmas seasons. For the Christian community, Advent is not only about the expectation of the birth of Jesus, which has already happened in history, it is also about the rebirth of the earth, the re-infusing of the New Creation into our currently beautiful, but broken world. The hope is expressed every time the Lord’s Prayer is recited in public and private devotion: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

About the Music 2020

The year 2020 will surely be noted as one of the more consequential years in choral music in history. Nearly across the globe, choirs ceased to sing for a period of months, and when some returned, it was to drastically different circumstances. The Middlebury College Choir managed a singing schedule that incorporated distance of twelve feet, masks, and smaller groups meeting for shorter periods of time. Needless to say, none of that is typical form for a group of people who gather for four hours weekly to share music and company with each other. By the close of the term, the College Choir musical accomplishments included a twenty-minute program presented by video in November, and two selections in this program, all recorded without audience and distanced. In some cases, the music was recorded in different groups, the latter group listening on earphones to synchronize. The program includes music from 2018 and 2019, and I include the notes from those programs here as well.

The program celebrates music, poetry, art, and how these are part of the Lessons and Carols tradition. The organ music is repertoire for the season, and congregational carols and hymns include traditional Advent and Christmas favorites. Choral music includes works by composers from North and South America, Africa, and Europe, and the uniqueness of each choral setting contributes to a program of remarkable contrasts. Light and darkness, pain and joy, hardship and hope, trust, comfort, and love are significant concepts in the music of this service of the Advent season. The entire program is structured in pairings, with the celebration of the birth, Betelehemu, at the center, and nearly all pairs include diverse cultural elements.

Opening and closing selections are the clearest traditional elements of the service, both in arrangements by Sir David Willcocks (1919-1915), long-time Director of Music of King’s College, Cambridge. Once in Royal David’s City retells the humility of the stable birth and the meeting of God as “children crowned” like stars; O Come, All Ye Faithful seems to summon celebration, and Willcocks’ arrangement leaves no note un-played. Hanacpachap is a synthesis of indigenous Quechuan melody and rhythm with colonial Spanish style of polyphony and harmony. Later in the program, Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten comes from the rich tradition of German part song and masterful vocal writing. Both works exploit the sonorous capabilities of the choir.

Tröstet mein Volk is similar to Weinachten in several ways, though generally gentler in rhythmic character. The Shepherd’s Carol evokes wintry hills, and Clive Samson’s poetic scene (“silence more lovely than music”) describes people in daily routine and a revelatory moment that inspires them to give of themselves. The repetition of the word “Lady” in Chilcott’s music invokes a sense of intimacy, reverence, and humility. In both pieces, the scoring of the voices creates shifting of layers of sound that contribute to an overall sense of placidity for much of each piece. Tröstet closes in bright fashion with an “alleluia.” In The Shepherd’s Carol, following a marvelously expressive phrase, “O, a voice from the sky, Lady,” the music settles quickly back to the serenity with which it opened. But like much of good music, things often aren’t quite the same at the end as they were in the beginning.

In Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, Jesus tells the Christmas story in first-person, including reference to his baptism. The stanzas of that carol not set in Gardner’s music include the Easter story. “This have I done” therefore includes Jesus’ self-sacrifice, and his “true love” indicates all of humanity. Llega la Navidad, with its merengue dance rhythm, is music of celebration, and though in many ways strikingly different from Tomorrow..., both evoke movement and procession, and both involve a rhythmic percussion part that serves as a timeline throughout.

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming is a traditional European pieces on the program, often included in our services as a congregational carol. (This year, the College Choir recorded it a month prior to the service, masked, distanced, and robed!) While the steady pleasantness of the piece is not particularly evocative of hardship, the text recognizes elements of humility in the birth story, and the subtle, elegant beauty of the polyphony is distinctive. Paired with that piece is Rosephanye Powell’s setting of Countee Cullen’s poem Christus Natus Est, also masterful vocal polyphony but decidedly different in tone. A poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen’s words juxtapose images of the story of Jesus’ birth with images of the African American experience. The incessant pulse, intensity of dynamics, and harmonic character of Powell’s music capture sounds of the African American Spiritual, the relentlessness of Cullen’s poetry, and a story of human suffering. (Due to a technical misfortune, we are presenting this music, recorded in 2019, with the splendid art of Janet McKenzie.)

Betelehemu, the center of the program structure, includes Western European and African musical attributes. Where a colonial influence has imparted certain musical conventions and theology, African musical elements structure and propel the piece. This Nigerian carol arrangement is the product of the relationship between Nigerian musician Babatunde Olatunji (1927-2003) and Wendell P. Whalum (1931-1987), while Olatunji was studying at Morehouse College, where Whalum was Director of the Morehouse College Glee Club. Whalum was a well-traveled, acclaimed musician in teaching, performance, and musicology, and his arrangement is a tremendously successful demonstration of the power of synthesis of musical styles in the choral idiom. It is no surprise, given that and the powerful performances of the piece by the Morehouse Glee Club with Wendell Whalum and since that Betelehemu has become extraordinarily popular among choirs in the United States, and across the choral world.

The Service of Lessons and Carols celebrates music and tradition, and endeavors to spread joy in a time of darkness. This program also poses challenging questions. Is it just, that some are scorned by others? Who deserves to hope? Can and should we help those in need? The College Choir shares this program in the spirit of artistic beauty, thoughtful inquiry, and joyful community.

—Jeffrey Buettner

From the artist: The Night Visitors


This is a painting about a journey taken at night, led by a star. The Night Visitors traveled under the bright light of a star to honor a newborn baby—this child sent for our salvation. It is also about Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, present to the child at birth, and onward, and it is about a strong, young mother, Mary, who was called by God.

Mary is the voice and the action of this painting and she looks at us with eyes conveying sadness, longing, and admittedly, doubt. She presents the Christ Child yet holds on to him tightly, this swaddled baby whose sleeping face is circled in cloth. Only he has a simple pink halo.

The Night Visitors pays homage to the nurturing side of men. Sadly the quiet and gentle male spirit is not celebrated often enough. Here Joseph and the Magi have their eyes closed in contemplation and prayer reflecting longing for closeness to God, our shared experience. I was inspired by the good monks at Mepkin Abbey and by my own lovely son to create a work of art honoring the peaceful and tender side of men and what a beautiful thing that is.

On June 17, 2015, nine innocent souls lost their lives at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. Recently a friend attended the National Black Sister’s Conference in Charleston and had a prayer service at the church. She said what touched her most was seeing the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s chair in the sanctuary draped with black cloth. Her memory became mine. While working on The Night Visitors day after day and hearing the news coming from Charleston the painting took on a life of its own and this tragedy infused the painting. Perhaps the darkness of the spirit deepened, perhaps eyes are closed more tightly and perhaps Mary looks at us with larger questions behind her eyes.

When Fr. Guerric Heckle called me to discuss creating a new and inclusive interpretation of the Magi story I was instantly inspired. I was delighted and honored to know the painting would serve as the invitational piece into Mepkin Abbey’s 2015 Crèche Festival. But one never knows at the outset of a journey the path that will be revealed and for an artist just how a work of art will move for- ward into existence. I accepted the spiritual commitment it takes to do this work and mourned, along with everyone else, the massacre in Charleston. It is my hope that viewers will experience The Night Visitors as a beacon of possibility, one that encourages hope over despair and like the congregation at Mother Emanuel have chosen so inspirationally to do, may it invite forgiveness and love.

—Janet McKenzie, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont 

Department of Music

Mahaney Center for the Arts
72 Porter Field Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753