Virginia Erner sings during a First Presbyterian Church choir practice ahead of Christmas. The church’s choir director, Brent Neuenschwander, says the choir began rehearsing for the Christmas season back in September. (Photo by Kevin Bean)

Staff Writer
It’s Christmastime, and that means a song is in the air.

Church choir directors started planning Christmas music early, in fall or even summer. They select the music, and the choirs spend weeks rehearsing. It’s a lot of work for the choir and the director alike — but it’s also rewarding.

“There are times that I just get a chill down … the back of my neck. And that’s what it’s all about,” said Jane Eakin, choir director at First Lutheran Church in Findlay.

Brent Neuenschwander, director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Findlay, said one chorus member shared that singing together is part of what makes it feel like Christmas, and “It just wouldn’t quite be Christmas without it.”

He said “There’s just an energy,” and people reconnect with those from out of town at Christmas.

The First Presbyterian choir started rehearsing for Christmas in late September.

Neuenschwander said many of the carols are the same each year, but the anthems are different. (In anthems, just the choir sings, while the congregation sings along to the carols.)

At a recent First Presbyterian rehearsal, the choir focused on “O Come All Ye Faithful.” A blend of about 20 voices, high-pitched and low, sang “O Come, let us adore him.”

“Basses are the smartest, though,” said one of the men in the choir.

Hope Williams, a 19-year-old Bowling Green State University student who is majoring in music, joined the choir in September. She’s the choir’s youngest member and has made friends with people of all ages.

“It’s awesome,” she said.

Another choir member volunteered that four of the singers are 80 or older. Many of them have sung for decades.

Neuenschwander said he has the “utmost admiration” for Williams, who was attending rehearsals amid finals week at BGSU. So, “in your prayers, remember Hope,” he told her fellow choir members.

Members of the choir prayed together at the end of the session, thanking God “for every note we sing,” Neuenschwander said.

Ed Erner, 80, has sung since he was 10 years old. His wife of 56 years, Virginia, is a former music teacher and is also in the First Presbyterian choir. The couple met in a choir in college.

Erner said he participates because “it’s spiritual.” He said singing is also good for the body, because of the breathing involved.

Neuenschwander said through their rehearsals, members of the choir donate the equivalent of two weeks’ of full-time work every year. They spend many hours singing the same carols, “singing those words over and over. … They just mean more every time.”

Eakin said she often starts preparing in September. She tries to fit music around the lessons that will be used in the Christmas services, noting that the congregation likes to sing carols. First Lutheran also has a woman who has played harp at its Christmas Eve services for the past 40 years.

The service ends with singing “Silent Night” amid lit candles. The church also added Taize services during Advent this year.

Eakin said it’s a must to sing the familiar carols, but sometimes there are changes — for example, the choir has done “The First Noel” before, but this year is preparing a different arrangement.

On Christmas Eve, people like to hear familiar carols, “but you don’t want to overdo it,” said Miriam Gibson, organist at First Lutheran. She makes an attempt to select her music around Scripture readings.

She has been playing organ at the church for six years and said “I really like being a part of this church family.”

At the end of Christmas Eve services, “I’m going to be fatigued,” she said, noting that the organ is demanding physically as well as mentally. “And it’s also Christmas Eve at my house,” and family will be over, Gibson said.

Both Gibson and Eakin were raised Lutheran and belonged to church choirs in their youth.

Eakin said music is a very important part of the Lutheran faith.

Lisa Gossman is senior choir director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Jenera. That church held its Christmas service Dec. 16, with a special program including the children’s choir, bell choir, senior choir and praise team.

She, too, starts preparing for Christmas in July or August, trying to decide whether to do something new or “oldies but goodies.”

The choir is “fairly small,” but “all very dedicated and very talented,” she said.

“We just want it to be very uplifting” for the congregation, visitors, “and ultimately to the glory of God.”

At the end of the Christmas season, she tends to feel “relief. A big sigh.” Gossman is also the church organist, which also involves preparation.

But the biggest reward is “the feeling of helping these people as part of a second family, for one thing. We just, we have so much fun at our practices.”

There is a woman, Gossman said, who sits up front at church. When the choir sings a faster Gospel song, “I’ll see her tapping her knee. And that’s just a really good feeling. … If you see smiles coming from the congregation, you know that they’re feeling it, too.”

Music coordinator Bob Asel directs one of the choirs at Findlay’s College First Church of God. He said there is a sense of tradition that comes along with Christmas, and some of the carols have been sung for centuries.

“There’s that sense of being connected, through time, with all of God’s people,” he said.

The Rev. David Welker, minister of worship, directs the other College First Church of God choir. As worship leader, he said the Christmas service is one that involves planning. You can’t “go into cruise control,” he said.

But Welker said, “I love it. … Because the church is full” and it’s a special time, ending with singing “Silent Night” and the hoisting of the candles.

He noted that this year marks the 200th anniversary of “Silent Night,” which was first performed in Germany on Christmas Eve, 1818.

Welker, a self-described “Christmas junkie,” starts thinking about Christmas in June or July. He said he likes a lot of the secular as well as the sacred aspects of the holiday — even the “schmaltzy.”

And as the services are being planned, he tries to do his part to ensure that the services and the music allow people to “experience the fullness of joy. … So, no sour notes.”

On Thursday, as the College First choir rehearsed, Asel directed the singers to repeat certain sections to troubleshoot problems. Listening to their voices — women and men separately in some sections, then the whole group together — was beautiful and peaceful.

Last year, Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday, so the church held its regular Sunday morning services, then the evening Christmas Eve services. The choir had to sing at five different services, and spent many hours at church that day.

Welker said it’s an important service for church members. In general, people are dressing more casually for church than they once did, “But Christmas Eve, people dress up.”

Welker and former College First pastor the Rev. Bill Reist, used to talk about the “long walk back to the car” at the end of services after they, as the last ones in the church, locked the building and turned off the lights. Sometimes it would be snowing. The town would be quiet. There would be a sigh of relief. “And you say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ And it’s over.”

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
Twitter: @swarthurs