Closing Words by Rev. Tom Goldsmith Volume 6

04 December 2020


It was just this time of year, 1977, when I was starting the ministry of my second church, First Parish in Waltham, Universalist Unitarian. The congregation was a bit ahead of its time, merging the city’s Universalist and Unitarian churches in 1958. The UUA didn’t get its consolidation act together until 1961. In deference to the huge endowment that the Universalist church of Waltham carried in their dowry, it was decided to officially rename the historic parish, gracing the city since 1696, as Universalist Unitarian. 

So there I was in the church’s parking lot, age 28, when a 60-year old member of the choir crossed my path. She had just finished rehearsing when she broached the subject of Christmas. And in her ebullient embrace of the holiday, and a wink of her eye, she said to me, the new minister: “You will like how we do Christmas in this church.” 

I was a bit taken aback by her implication that the church does Christmas. At this point I already had two Christmas Eve services under my clergy belt, looking forward to my third. I caught by breath and foolishly said: “Oh great. I can’t wait to watch it. Is there a special pew where I’m supposed to sit? 

She immediately realized her gaffe and corrected her original premise that Christmas somehow unfolds in the church, magically, with no one guiding it. I was embarrassed for being snarky; she was embarrassed for seeming foolish. And then we giggled some, apologized to each other, but never really came to grips about the source that makes all of a Christmas Eve service memorable.  

My immediate predecessor in that church lived in England until he was 12 years old. He could speak the King’s English with ease and amusement, and as a full grown adult he could pull the accent out of his pocket whenever he chose. He used his gifted elocution for all eight Christmas Eve services as minister of the Waltham parish. Each year the congregation waited expectantly for him to present another reading of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”   

I toyed with the idea of preserving the tradition. But I always thought Dylan Thomas a tad boring, I lacked the accent, and I was establishing my own liturgy of what constituted a Christmas Eve service. My gig was a simple American Christmas story and an imperfect doggerel.  And this was all to be delivered in a New York accent. I feared this might be all too jarring for my new congregation.  I was filled with dread and wished that the church itself somehow did Christmas, so I needn’t worry.  

It wasn’t until Christmas Eve itself, 1977, a few minutes before we were to start, that I received the choreography. I was mingling with the choir in the social hall,; everyone beautifully robed. We were getting ready to dash out into the New England winter and assemble at the narthex (back) of the church where the vestibule offered a bit of respite from the cold temperatures. I was to be the last one to process, following the choir to the huge chancel, and then make a right turn and mount the pulpit. 

It was not a large congregation, most noticeable on regular Sundays when the congregation scattered amidst the 285-seat sanctuary. But on Christmas Eve, the town’s people followed their tradition of old by worshipping at the First Parish. In addition to every pew filled to capacity, a standing crowd rimmed the perimeter of the church. The choir was considerably larger than usual. Two-by-two they processed, and in single file behind them, the Minister of Religious Education, the Assistant Minister, and then I.  I took a deep breath, pulled forward by the momentum of the opening hymn “Joy to the World,” holding back tears when the sopranos let loose with their descants. Once in the pulpit, higher than ours in Salt Lake and jutting out into the church more forcibly, I asked the congregation to be seated, and a different Waltham Christmas Eve service began. It lasted for ten Christmases.  

I recall this experience as our worship team prepares for yet another Christmas Eve service, albeit via Zoom. But it will be live on December 24th at 5:30p.m. It will be my 34th and final Christmas Eve service with you. For many in our congregation, “our” Christmas Eve service provides the template for how Christmas Eve services ought to run.  How will Christmas Eve continue to fulfill expectations and traditions with a new minister working with Monica? 

I’ve learned a few things over the years. It actually is the church that does Christmas. A Christmas story and the accent of the storyteller matter little in the scheme of things. It’s the gathering of the members and friends in church on a holy night that carries the Christmas spirit. Friends and family singing together and lighting candles in the dark are the elements of a Christmas Eve service. The frosted windows of the church, the poinsettias on the chancel, and the sopranos hitting descants higher than where angels fly, make Christmas Eve so meaningful.  

First Church in Salt Lake City has “made” Christmas Eve in the same location since 1927. That’s a lot of years and a lot of ministers. And always did the service provide what everyone needed: Music, hope, joy, and a blessed moment to pause before the material aspects of Christmas become madly manifest. 

I wish the woman in the Waltham parking lot 43 years ago could hear my humble apology, giving her credit for discerning from whence the magic of Christmas comes. It resides fully in the church, where the people gather to follow a star.


Tom Goldsmith