Seasonal compromises

Trinity Church lit for the Christmas season.

" close to heaven as human hands and voices have ever crafted. To be amid people in a room so full and so fully at peace. This is the Christmas of dreams.” – Amy Traverso, Yankee Magazine.[i]

There are multiple reasons why the holidays are challenging for many people; this year there is an added feature putting stress on the season. Many of the parties and events we have built traditions around are inaccessible, while others are simply not possible.

For too long, I found myself dreading this time of year, every year. As a Catholic by birth though not by faith, the story of the birth of Christ feels remote. Then there is the pressure of gift-giving baked into gratuitous commercialism. No one has much time to do all the things … yet our environment demands otherwise.

One year I was anxious enough that I decided to ignore Christmas altogether. At noon on Christmas Day I walked to the movie theater on Tremont Street across from the Common and saw Juno (2007), which had just opened. Kind of a weird movie to see on Christmas.

Kind of weird to ignore Christmas.

I gleaned only failure from this experience. The truth is, the entire world forces you to respond to Christmas whether you are Christian or not. I had to figure out a way to celebrate the holidays in a way that felt meaningful to me.

I had to figure out a way to celebrate the holidays in a way that felt meaningful to me.

So, in collaboration with all sides of myself, I came up with the idea that I could engage in activities I enjoyed for the entire season. Then, if the twenty-fifth day of December turned out to include headaches and driving all over New England, at least I had several weeks pursuing moments that were more fulfilling than what I was used to, and what I had begun to dread. After all, there are many enjoyable things about the Christmas season, among them baking, festive décor, and driving around to see the outdoor displays, and, of course, there is my first love, music.

A premier annual Christmas affair is the outstanding Candlelight Carols mass at Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. The church offers a full mass celebrating the birth of Christ with traditional sermons and hymns, accented with ancient European interpretations and long-established folktales, all ensconced in a melodic lilting of seasonal song set within the transcendent “bold spirit”[ii] of Trinity’s architecture. Candles glow on chambersticks positioned from altar to chancel.

In a non-pandemic year, Candlelight Carols is a ticketed production on a Sunday, usually about a week before Christmas. The Saturday before, however, they offer a dress-rehearsal event where revelers are welcome. The only cost: standing in line for two hours on the Copley Green in temperatures on the freezing spectrum from bitter to arctic.

Luminaria lit in honor of Nelson Mandela.

My regular dress-rehearsal attendance began in 2013. That year, while waiting in line, a volunteer handed out white paper bags and markers asking us to write a message of peace on the bag. The bags were used to create luminarias outside the church to memorialize Nelson Mandela, who had passed away a week before.

Upon entering the church there is a mad and uncomfortable dash for a seat close enough to see the altar for the full experience. This is where having tickets does a convenient experience make! The production always begins on time although it wouldn’t matter. It is an experience to take in the visuals of an architectural interior so magnificent it requires minimal festive accoutrements. The lights dim. A divine diminuendo modulates the crescendo whirling above.

The choir is conventionally clad and comprises singers and musicians aged approximately 8 to 80. Each year the program is robust. The processions are choreographed to enhance the experience of the music. The colorful harmonies and alternating tones resonating in various areas of the church are complemented by altos and tenors floating through the aisles carrying lit candles. The experience is alluring for all the senses and spirits, both fragile and hearty, religious and non.

It’s daylight at the commencement of the mass and dark at the conclusion. When we left the church my first year it was snowing. Spotlights are intentionally positioned to enhance the details and depth of the church exterior. The tree on the green is colorfully lit; that year it featured snow collecting on its boughs. The luminaria peace bags in honor of Nelson Mandela were arranged on the church steps. It was a magical scene and a lasting first memory of the Candlelight Carols experience.

It was a magical scene and a lasting first memory of the Candlelight Carols experience.

Trinity has offered this event to the public since 1909, but it will not be opening its doors this year. This is probably the first and only year Trinity is unable to assemble the public for Candlelight Carols, yet, they have thoughtfully designed a program to be experienced online.

On Saturday, 19 December, at 5:30 pm, the church will provide a live stream of opening night of Candlelight Carols through FacebookLive and Vimeo accessed via the parish website. See their calendar for more events and add it to yours if you are in need of a holiday experience to which you can relate.

Christmas shows up every single year at the same time no matter how soon the stores begin playing music or force-feeding their seasonal specials and décor. During this moment in time, our individual circumstances are affecting the ways in which we celebrate as individuals and congregants. I wish everyone balance and the means to find a connection to the things you value this year.


[i] “Candlelight Carols,” Trinity Church, Boston, accessed 15 December 2020.

[ii] “Art and Architecture,” Trinity Church, Boston, accessed 15 December 2020.

Susan Donnelly

About Susan Donnelly

Susan is a native New Englander and second generation American from a large extended family of artists. She spent two years with the Research Services team, working on several large projects, before joining Newbury Street Press. Prior to NEHGS, Susan was the director and auction coordinator with a premier antique gallery in Boston for two decades and an archival volunteer with the Hingham Historical Society. She received her B.A. in English Literature from Simmons College and holds a Professional Certificate in Genealogy from Boston University. Her research interests include Colonial America, royal ancestry, westward expansion, and U.S. migration trails. Susan is a photographer and potter and collects mid-century modern art.View all posts by Susan Donnelly