Christmas Minster Feature

Halifax Minster. Rec Hilary Barber and Minster staff.
Halifax Minster. Rec Hilary Barber and Minster staff.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, crooned Perry Como in the well-loved festive hit.

And for Halifax Minster, Christmas is also one of the busiest with as many as 14,000 people coming through the ancient, solid oak doors of this historic building.

Halifax Minster. Organist Graham Gribbon.

Halifax Minster. Organist Graham Gribbon.

The festive throng will include members of the regular congregation, choristers, musicians, school pupils and their teachers, not forgetting hundreds of shepherds, angels and wise men and even the odd Batman!

“There’s always one child who likes to be different,” jokes Vicar of Halifax, The Rev Canon Hilary Barber. “And it’s usually mine!”

And as in previous years, not all the visitors will be two-legged. The well-loved Christingle services feature a real live Donkey.

These visitors will be taking part in a packed festive feast of celebrations including Rotary events, bible groups, Eucharists, holy communions, school concerts, nativities, carol services and Christingles.

In East Yorkshire, the lighting of the Christmas candle remains a popular custom, says Roger Ratcliffe.

In East Yorkshire, the lighting of the Christmas candle remains a popular custom, says Roger Ratcliffe.

For the Minster team it means long hours and busy days. Each department has its own challenges: the clerk of works block books the Minster diary so the huge Christmas tree and lights can come in (meeting all the health and safety requirements necessary these days); the director of music has the music chosen for the carol services and the choirs and organists are busy rehearsing; the administrator is busy ensuring contracts have been returned and floor managers and volunteers are booked for each occasion; the new photocopier will be doing over time as thousands of Orders of Service are printed; the clergy are busy writing services and choosing carols and readings, and then inviting people across the town to come and read in the Minster.

These invited guests represent a wide cross section of the whole community; in recent years the Minster has teamed up with Dean Clough-based radio station Phoenix FM, who will broadcast and record numerous events and services over the festive period, enabling organisations to hear their events once more, or people at home looking after the young and old, to be able to participate in their own way.

For Hilary all this frenetic activity is second nature. Growing up in a vicarage in Cambridge meant he lived in a busy house whose doors were always almost open and none more so than in the build up for Christmas.

“The annual Nativity meant costumes dragged out of the attic, to be ironed, washed, hemmed, and a cast of hundreds of children, who ether didn’t want to be in the play, or who were fighting over who was going to be Mary that particular year,” he recalls.

Halifax Minster. Christmas Nativity.

Halifax Minster. Christmas Nativity.

“Singing in the choir, the most coveted solo of the year was the first verse of Once in Royal, at the Christmas Carol Service, usually held at 6.30pm on Christmas Eve. It was on Christmas Eve that as a family, we would all stop what we were doing, and with a radio on in many rooms listening to the Carol Service from King’s, we’d decorate the house ready for Christmas day. We didn’t usually have a tree, but a large piece of yew, taken from a tree in the next door church yard.

“My mum and my two sisters loved to decorate the house with streamers, winter decorations, and objects which hung from the ceiling, while my dad and I would bring in wood and coal for the fire, ducking in the coal shed from the brace of pheasants which was an annual gift from the neighbouring farmer, waiting to be plucked on Boxing Day for dinner.

“Having been to Midnight service, my mum would creep into all our bedrooms, and deliver large pillow cases of presents to be opened a few hours later. The best year, was when my sister woke in the night and without putting on her light opened what she believed to be some kind of chocolate bar, to find out hours later that she’d eaten half a bar of Play-doh!

“Christmas afternoon, after a late lunch following the morning services, we’d snooze in front of the television and open fire, as my dad slipped out on his bike, visiting older people, whom he knew to be spending Christmas on their own, and for whom he would be the only person they would see all day on Christmas Day.”

Halifax Minster. Brian Oswin with the Minsters Christmas Tree.

Halifax Minster. Brian Oswin with the Minsters Christmas Tree.

Hilary explains that at the Minster, Christmas preparations begin in earnest early summer and by September most services and events are booked in. Additional stage lights are connected up and this is when the Minster becomes a theatre not only for liturgy, but for the many seasonal events and concerts.

Since Halifax Parish Church became a Minster, Christmas has exploded, with many organisations from the private, public, and third sectors all coming for their Christmas celebrations: Overgate Hospice, Lloyds Banking Group, Christian Aid and Eureka to name a few.

Not only do they choose this wonderful building as the setting for their special celebrations, but rehearsals also need booking in the Minster diary alongside the daily round of 3 services a day throughout the year.

Christmas 2015 will see the usual Christingle service on Christmas Eve but because of growing popularity, this year there’ll be three performances at 1.45pm, 3pm and 4pm (last year there were two services, and 1,800 people turned up!)

“This is one of the most magical services of the year, when we have a brass band, a real donkey, and all the children who dress up and perform the Nativity,” says Hilary.

“It’s amazing to imagine Christmas in the Minster for over 900 years, bearing testimony to how God became a human being in the person of Jesus, and how the story of Jesus’s birth has been told over and over again for hundreds of years and carols sung over and over again.”

This year CDs will be on sale after Christmas, capturing many of the special musical moments so that choirs and readers will be able to relive them and look back with pride and admiration.

Once the last event has finished, Hilary, a dad of four, admits that by the time Christmas Day arrives, he is ready for a well-earned break.

“When I get home, I have a large sherry (or three), and a bacon sandwich, and fall asleep until my mother-in-law wakes me up for Christmas dinner. In the evening, I open a few presents and see what the children have got this year. On Boxing Day we’re off to watch Manchester United and some time off with the family!”

For a full list of Minster Christmas events, visit: www.halifaxminster.org.uk/events/