5 Tips for a Merry Bilingual & Intercultural Christmas

The majority of the parishes I served over the course of 18 years had at least one weekend mass in Spanish, and I was almost always responsible for directing the Spanish choir. This meant that our major parish celebrations, like the triduum, Midnight Mass, major feasts and Christmas concerts were usually bilingual. If you’re just starting out, these joyful moments of parish life can be stressful- but they don’t have to be. Especially during the Christmas season a little creativity can turn seasonal concerts sing-alongs and pageants into annual community traditions that build bridges through music.

Here are some pieces of wisdom I’ve acquired along the way.

1. What about after Christmas?

There were many parish traditions like Guadalupe, Simbang Gabi, and a variety of school pageants that were best suited for the Advent season. In a working class neighborhood, parishioners might be working extra shifts up until Christmas eve. Students get overwhelmed with finals.

My most successful Christmas concert was a Sunday after Christmas! The Christmas season is not limited to Christmas Day. The afternoon or evening on New Years Day would be a great day for an elegant concert. The Epiphany would be great days for a family concert, and you could bring the Los Reyes out at the end to give a small gift- a prayer card, medal or favor-sized musical instrument (like a bell or kazoo)- to all of the children.

2. Speaking of children, involve the children. If you have parish of young families, involve the kids! If it’s mostly retirees, invite them to bring their grandchildren! You don’t need to do a ton of rehearsals if you don’t already have a children’s choir.

Here’s one idea. In September, put out a save the date so that families can plan to be local for the practice and the event. Limit the group to children in grade 3 & 4. Have ONE hour-long rehearsal the week before the concert, and teach the children two or three simple songs like Little Drummer Boy, Burrito Sabanero or Go Tell it on the Mountain. Since this may be the first time you’ve met these children, make sure their parents understand that they are expected to stay for the entire practice.

As for concert seating, position the children on the altar steps so that all they have to do is stand up and sing when it’s their turn to sing. This was a suggestion made many years ago by a colleague who was extremely skilled at organizing people- and especially children. I was extremely skeptical but yes, this method works way better than lining everybody up, plus its way less time consuming.

3. You’re not in Kansas…err… Cambridge anymore.

Lessons and Carols is a beautiful custom that Catholics have adapted from the Anglican tradition. You can find a modern adaptation on the USCCB website, but it’s not the only way to do an Advent/Christmas carol service.

You could also do a few other things. First, if you’d like a copy of my adapted bilingual version, shoot me an email at elena@fontsound.org. If you decide to do a concert after Christmas, you could read excerpts from the Gospel for each day between Christmas and the day of your concert. I’m not too keen on 9 readings and songs- personally, I think that’s a bit beyond today’s attention span- especially your concert is on a Sunday.

If you’re not sold on the post-Christmas idea, you might also want to consider offering a musical celebration of Las Posadas. I would recommend using this new resource from OCP as the book for the home posada visits. Make the final posada a bilingual concert in the parish church, with festive, well prepared renditions of some (or all) of the songs in the book. You can learn more about the resource by clicking here to go to the OCP website.

What I love about this resource is that all of the songs are time-honored familiar, traditional tunes that have easy melodies- which leads me to tip #4.

4. Ask your choirs about the traditonal Christmas songs they sang as children, and the songs they love to sing in Church during the Christmas season. They will sound their best when they are singing songs they love.

Don’t assume that Spanish music is limited to one musical idiom, or that taste is limited to a particular style. I’ve been in parishes where a few choir members from Colombia & Peru received extensive conservatory training in the 1950’s. This group was receptive to four-part choral repertoire. I’ve been in other parishes where choir members from the very same places preferred a folk style with improvised harmonies. Language does not dictate culture, tradition or preference, and the Latino experience is quite diversified.

If I could have done any one thing different in my early career, I would have asked for more input from the people I served. Here is one such opportunity. Rather than presuming to know what my choirs would have wanted to sing, I should asked for more input, listened and acted upon the information I received. Ask your people what they want to sing, and let them sing!

5. Keep the program simple.

An hour is probably best, so shoot for 12 songs at most. If you have readings, scale that back to 9 pieces. Either way, at least 1/3 should be assembly sing-alongs.

Some great assembly sing-alojg possibilities include…

  • O Come, O Come Emanuel/ O Ven Emanuel
  • Venid Fieles Todos/Oh Come All Ye Faithful
  • Silent Night/Noche de Paz
  • Angels We Have Heard on High/Hoy en la Tierra (Angeles Cantando Est├ín)

I also like Ven Salvador/Come Saving Lord by Peter Kolar from WLP. It’s a bit more of an Advent piece, but unless you have done this a few weeks in a row (which I have done several years ago and I highly recommend,) or it’s already a perennial Advent favorite, it might not be familiar to your people.

Remember, Christmas is a joyful time. Don’t add more stress to your already full plate. Go easy on yourself and your volunteers. Stick to familiar repertoire that will help your people shine like candles on the Advent wreath or stars in the sky.

I’ve got a few more resources to share, but it’s a lot for one blog post about church music, so please, shoot me an email for all the goods at elena@fontsound.org.

What’s your favorite bilingual Christmas Carol and why? Let me know in the comments below!

P.S. Of course, whatever you choose to do, keep the program to an hour, and make sure to have hospitality afterwards. Nothing beats a warm cup of Abuelita

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