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Do You Hear What I Hear?

Selecting the right songs for holiday service is a careful balance for church music directors.

Hark! This is the time of year when the herald angels sing. But which songs? Everybody has their favorite, and the Christmas season is a time when church music directors must make a careful balance between meeting expectations and delivering meaningful services.

"People are passionate about their faith," said Douglas Beck, choirmaster and organist at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on South Pit Street. "And so these are very intimate decisions because they bring out so many emotions."

Beck has been the chorister at St. Paul's since September, so he is confronting the traditions of the church and while simultaneously to set his own distinctive tone. He began planning for the season of Advent shortly after being hired using the liturgical calendar as a guide to match the thematic development of the season with appropriate musical accompaniment. For example, the theme of the first week of Advent was the end of time. So Beck chose the 15th-century French standard "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

"That's a very familiar song," said Beck. "And people love to sing it."

AS THE SEASON progresses, Beck's selections track the emerging ideas of the season. John the Baptist is the star of the second week in Advent, so Beck selected "Prepare the Way, O Zion." The third week features the popular lessons and carols, so Beck fashioned a theme emphasizing contemplation and mysticism.

"These songs trace the history from Adam and Eve to the first lesson of Christ," said Beck. "These are some of the most ancient hymns that the church is still singing."

Next, the herald angel Gabriel sings of the coming of Christ. So Beck selected "Magnificat"as a tribute to the virgin mother. Finally, as Christmas Eve approaches, the blockbuster songs are deployed for maximum effect. This is when Beck plans to pull out the blockbuster hits like "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night," and "Joy to the World."

"Good music is like a good sermon," said Beck. "It comforts us and makes us uncomfortable, sometimes at the same time."

EACH CHURCH must make its own decisions about how to celebrate the birth of Christ. For some music directors, the Christmas season is so much of an extension of the rest of the year that the song selection barely changes at all. For these churches, the practice of setting aside a special coterie of songs might distract from the sacred nature of the holiday.

"We may hit Silent Night or something like that for the spirit of the holiday, but all of our songs area really about Christ,' "said Drue Williams, minister of music at Providence St. John's Baptist Church on North Alfred Street. "So everything is pretty much business as usual for us."

Williams said that many of the songs his church plays at other times of the year could be considered Christmas songs because they celebrate the birth of Christ. And, conversely, songs he might select in December would also celebrate the ministry and resurrection of Jesus. Ultimately, he said, the creeping secular nature of a commercialized Christmas can often be at odds with the religious meaning behind the religious nature of the holiday.

"To me, a Christmas carol is like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," said Williams. "So we wouldn't emphasize that kind of a thing."

OTHERS SAY that secular holiday songs are not necessarily an enemy to the religious nature of the holiday. For these people, the joy of the season can take a wide variety of forms elves and reindeer outside the sanctuary and Mary's miraculous virgin birth inside the church.

"We have a vested interest in the meaning of the songs," said Ken Worley, pastor at Grace Brethren Church on Commonwealth Avenue. "But it's something that varies from person to person."

For Worley, the duality of musical selections creates multiple layers of meaning for the Christmas season.

"Some people are looking for the traditional carols like "Come All Ye Faithful. Then there are people like me who enjoy Bruce Springsteen's "'Santa Claus is Coming to Town.' Obviously, we wouldn't play that in the church, but it's something I always like hearing this time of year."