Dreaming of a Black Christmas

Some of my fondest Christmas memories take me back to when I was an elder in a black church. When I preached, folks not only listened, they shouted hallelujah and amen! When we shared the Christmas story together everyone called out “Praise the Lord!” and clapped their hands.

My town near Chicago prides itself on its ethnic and economic diversity and the racial integration it has fostered (mostly successfully) since the 1960’s. An African American theater community theater group in town decided they wanted to do an integrated version of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity. The play is an African American version of the Luke 2 Christmas story heavily loaded with Gospel music, and is a jazzy mix of church and show.

It turned out that not that many white folks tried out. In fact, for most of the rehearsal time my 14-year-old son and I were the only ones cast. I got the role of Elder and my son was the Narrator. As show dates approached and the men’s chorus wandered dangerously adrift, my versatile songbird daughter (home for the holidays from college) joined the ranks and rescued the tenor section.

It was a remarkable cultural and spiritual privilege for me to be part of this troupe, and especially rich to share it with my children. Having sung in many (staid, white) church choirs, this approach was something entirely new to me. The choral director never once handed out sheet music or lyrics. She sang it all to us, then with us, until we had the songs memorized. She developed tight, intricate harmonies for each part and stood next to each of us until she thought we all had our notes. Then we’d sing everything together…and she would do hours of individual triage.

The ages of the cast of 18 ranged from age 6 to 70, from adorable  tots to a commanding grandmother whose bosom could comfort any soul. Before each performance the cast would huddle in a circle holding hands. The director would call on someone to offer a prayer, and after that we sang a little chant “Umojah means unity.” I learned that Umojah is one of the principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Maintaining unity had some challenges. The actress who played Mary couldn’t stand the guy playing Joseph. One (white) guy who helped with props was usually drunk. He kept hitting on the young women in creepy ways. He also provided hay (complete with bugs) for the climactic stable birthing scene. (We got fresh bales before the show went up.) Some teenage cast members with great singing voices but bad attitudes got the boot early on. On the whole, though, we captured the spirit of Umojah.

There were two of us acting as preachers for this faux congregation. The other preacher, a gorgeous young woman, performed a spectacular liturgical dance to “O Holy Night.” I was required to sing the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus.” My solo was abysmal and still makes me shudder. They should have just let me preach.

I recall Mary, hugely pregnant (thanks to a pad strapped under her costume) and traveling that difficult road to Bethlehem, singing the haunting lyrics: “I just can’t give up now…I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.” I still find myself humming that song at times when I think I’ve had about all I can take. You can hear the song here:

I also loved the very simple “Fix Me, Jesus.” Beautifully sung and accompanied by tinkling bells, this was as basic and profound a prayer as I have ever prayed. You can  hear a version of the song here

This year, when I’m singing carols and reading the familiar scriptures, I will also remember my days as a black preacher, the power of Umojah, and the truth behind the lyrics of our finale number: Joy, Joy, God’s Great Joy.

Christmas really is something to shout about!

What unusual Christmas experiences have you had?

How do you add enthusiasm and vigor to your worship?

What have been memorable Christmas musical events you have attended or participated in?


  1. Linda, what a wonderful experience!
    I have participated in many Christmas musical events, but I think my most memorable was Christmas of 1976, when my husband and I were living in Meridian, Mississippi. One of the large local churches needed some string instruments for their Christmas Eve midnight service and asked us to play (both on cello). The church was packed and the enthusiasm high. They had an amazing choir that shook the rafters with the final “Joy to the World.” When we got home, we discovered that the babysitter they had provided for our two children was almost totally deaf, but all was well, so we just laughed about it.
    Thank you for sharing the links too. I just can’t ever get my fill of Christmas music.

  2. What a beautiful piece, Linda (and those YouTube clips have me a little misty-eyed)!

    I can’t think of any Christmas experiences I have had that are quite so wonderful, but in the Winter 2010 issue of EXII, Emily Parker Updegraff (from your same town, Linda!) wrote a lovely piece called “A Seasonal Protestant” that like your piece highlights the benefits of experiencing other denominations’ ways of celebrating the season.

  3. Linda, what a wonderful post. I love that you and your family took part in this play. It inspires me to go beyond my immediate community and look for new ways to join with other people to celebrate.

    You asked, “How do you add enthusiasm and vigor to your worship?” This is something I’d love for other people to chime in on. I so wish we could get some joyful music into sacrament meeting. Is there any way we can do that given Church leaders’ cultural preference for somber church music? Do we just have to organize musical performances outside of church to really put joy in our worship?

  4. Wow, what a memorable experience. I would really love to participate in something non-denominational like this.

    We’re trying something new this year by going downtown to a service that we’ve heard is a bit more lively on Christmas Eve. It makes me sad that I didn’t really miss attending church on “Christmas Sunday” this year. I was the choir director for the last 3 Christmases, and I always tried to make it a bit more upbeat and interesting, but this year they didn’t have anything going except a last minute number that I was aware of.

    When we lived in NH, our stake did a wonderful outdoor live nativity show. It was cold but magical. I wish it was more common to see events like that out here in Idaho. I just don’t feel like the church encourages the type of worship for the holy days that I can get excited about. Maybe I’ll have to work on influencing that change next year 😉

  5. How wonderful, Linda! I am inspired to revive the Kwanzaa celebration I started when my (adopted, black) children were babies and drifted from as life has gotten busier over the last several years …

    Unusual experiences: this year has really been a gift. I have a new calling at church and have gotten to coordinate a donation to the local rescue mission through the Relief Society. Talking with the mission director several weeks ago, I learned a baby girl had just been born to one of the residents of the shelter. It brought home to me the plight of the Christ child in a whole new way and oh how I have shed tears for that baby girl and her mommy! This week when we delivered a pickup-truckful of food to the rescue mission, I met the tiny, beautiful baby and her mom and dad on their way out, leaving the shelter for the last time to move into their new apartment. Talk about a Christmas miracle!

    As for holiday memories, I had a wonderful experience as a member of a stake choir in an interfaith Christmas choir festival in Pittsburgh. This had to have been 1987 or 88. Our stake center in Greentree was packed *to the gills* with folks from many churches, singing carols from many lands. All the music was outstanding and I certainly had a sense – at age 13 or 14 – of being part of a much bigger Christian community.

  6. Nice post, Linda! I really admire the way you get involved in the community. I love spirituals, too and I really hope the Church will include some next time they revise the hymnal. It would do so much to welcome African Americans to the Church. As far as adding enthusiasm and vigor to worship, I’m afraid about the best I can muster is part-singing in the hymns. The hard thing about congregational singing is that, like it or not, it is led by the organ. If you have a crappy organist, you’re just plain sunk.

  7. I just adored this post, Linda! I grew up on gospel music and still find that nothing opens my soul to the Spirit quite like a rousing gospel choir filled with jubilation. Just the other day I was listening to Aretha Franklin’s version of “Joy to the World” in the car and found myself weeping. There’s something so powerful about that gutsy singing that feels like real joy, real salvation.

    Although I’m still too nervous about taking my children to other religious services where their misbehavior may be more obvious (you’ve got to love Mormon congregations so overloaded with kids it takes the pressure off your own!), we listen to gospel music on Sunday mornings and try to incorporate a variety of religious music and stories into our discussions of faith with our kids. I am a firm believer that seeking after everything “praiseworthy, virtuous or of good report” is a benefit to the soul and I learned long ago (in a religiously plural household) that there is goodness to be found beyond the traditions of any one religion. Your post is a beautiful reminder of why such searching is so good for our souls. Thank you!

  8. I was too busy wondering why you needed to point out everyone’s race, especially when all the white people were drunk, staid and creepy. White guilt is so early 2000’s. Aren’t we past that yet? Can’t we just focus on people and race and color in all its beauty? Or do always have to put one side down to raise the other up?

    I’m glad your family enjoyed your experience. But if you ever rewrite, you should focus on that, and not on disparaging the rest of your race for being uncultured, ignorant, creepy, sticks in the mud.

    • I don’t think you could have possibly misread this post more, Olive. What a shame that you couldn’t get past your own offense to recognize her distinctions weren’t to raise up or put down any particular race, but to highlight a particular cultural experience which was spiritually enriching for her. I think your comment was entirely outside of the spirit of this post.

  9. Wow, Olive. I’m surprised by your uncharitable reading of Linda’s post. She mentioned one white creepy person – she wasn’t generalizing that to the rest of her race. And she did mention how she sung in several staid, white choirs, but what’s wrong with saying that? I’m sure they were indeed staid compared to her experience with this particular musical. Linda was sharing a beautiful personal experience about stretching herself toward a different culture. I’m really taken aback by your comment.

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