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Christmas at Sherborne Abbey - meeting the people and choristers who make the festive celebrations special

PUBLISHED: 10:48 15 December 2014 | UPDATED: 10:48 15 December 2014

Paul Ellis conducting the Sherborne Choir

Paul Ellis conducting the Sherborne Choir

jayson hutchins m 07784508604

Advent is one of the busiest times in the Christian calendar. Valerie Singleton visits Sherborne Abbey

For many of us it seems as if Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year. But for those involved in the Sherborne Abbey festivities, the beginning of Christmas is the Advent Carol Service which takes place about four weeks before Christmas. This is the service that announces Christmas is on the way and a sense of fun and anticipation takes hold. Of course behind the scenes, plans begin long before then ...music has to be selected, new additions to the repertoire learnt and rehearsals carried out in an empty Abbey. But it is that first concert with candles on Advent Sunday, this year on 30 November, when the excitement leading up to December 25th begins to build.

Another cherished tradition, which happens in the first week of December, is putting up the Christmas tree in the Abbey. Generously donated each year by the Castle Estates, the tree is always chosen and beautifully decorated by Louise Burks and her team at the Castle Gardens Centre. And there are always plenty of willing local volunteers to help adorn the Abbey.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without carols and there are plenty of opportunities to sing your favourites in the numerous carol services at the Abbey. Sherborne has two Sunday Festive Shopping days (7 & 20 December), with Shoppers’ Carols throughout both days. Canon Eric Woods, the Vicar of Sherborne Abbey, likes these events because he feels it brings in people who might not normally come to church.

The Christingle Service, at the end of the first shopping day on 7 December is very much an event for little ones. Using oranges, candles and sweets to symbolise the world and light, it tells the story of Christ at Christmas, and helps raise precious funds for children in poverty. It’s a huge favourite, especially with the young children.

The choice of music for the various services is decided by Paul Ellis, Director of Music at the Abbey. It’s a position Paul has held since 2007, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to work in cathedral music.

“It’s difficult choosing the music for Christmas,” he tells me, “there’s so much I would like to include but I only have room for a certain amount.” As well as the traditional carols that we all know and love, Paul always tries to introduce a few new pieces and carols each year. “Christmas gives us the chance to play music we don’t usually have the opportunity to perform,” he adds.

Paul admits to being a bit of a hard task master because he wants his singers to achieve their potential and be the very best they can be. But he’s a good teacher and the choristers love working with him. Two of them told me that the choir wouldn’t be the same without Paul, and that because of his knowledge the musical education they gain is amazing.

For Canon Eric Woods, Christmas is just as busy as there are extra services to organise and prepare. Though Eric works closely with Paul, he doesn’t usually have a say in the music, he confesses that he might slip in a special request for something he likes such as the Echo Carol from the Christingle Service.

On 16 December Sherborne becomes even busier with Christmas shoppers arriving via the Cathedral Express which steams in for a day trip from Waterloo. Visitors have three hours to explore the delights of the town and enjoy a carol service at the Abbey before the train whisks them back to London.

Last year, when I sat in on choir rehearsals in a darkened Abbey, I met 15-year-old James Chambler, who joined the choir when he was seven. He was head chorister for a year until he decided to make way for his younger brother Ed. Now James has joined the ranks of the Gentlemen in the back row. He and his 13-year-old brother are the first choristers to be head and deputy in the Abbey Choir.

As the newest member of the Gentlemen, James will now sing alongside Mervyn Davies, the longest serving member, with a magnificent 35 years dedication to the choir. Mervyn and his wife Ann have never missed a Christmas and for 23 years Ann has been an unofficial, ‘Mistress of the Robes’, keeping all members of the choir, young and old, looking immaculate …doing the laundering, ironing, repairing and fittings all on her own.

Christmas at the Abbey is Ed and James’ favourite time of year. “The music is fun and joyful,” says Ed. “It’s very lively and really nice to sing.” As head chorister, Ed opens the Abbey Carol Service on the last Sunday before Christmas by singing, solo and unaccompanied, Once In Royal David’s City from the back of the Abbey. It’s an electric moment.

Their mum Ali Chambler is hugely proud of them both and is at all the rehearsals and services. She told me how the parents of the choristers provide refreshments in the Lady Chapel between the two Christmas Day services and also throw a thank you party for Paul Ellis, in Digby Hall after the Abbey Carol Service. Ali says that being in the Abbey on Christmas Day is particularly special.

Another chorister’s Mum, Henrietta (Etta) Stickland, whose son Arthur has been a chorister for three years, describes it as being part of the “lovely Abbey family” and relishes the great atmosphere over Christmas and the role the choir plays in that. “Arthur has become very involved with the Abbey and we’ve made so many friends,” says Etta. “It’s the most incredibly beautiful place to spend time in. It’s so inclusive and warm.”

Officially, Christmas begins on Christmas Eve with the Blessing of the Crib. This is such a popular service that in the past people have had to be turned away because there’s no more room. At the start of the service the lights are switched off on the tree and crib, a young person brings the baby Jesus to lie in the empty crib. Canon Woods blesses the crib and the lights are switched on again, eliciting gasps of delight.

The choir is not involved in this service, though the Gentlemen sing in Midnight Mass at 11.30pm. Ali tells me that she caught her breath when she suddenly realised that now she will be accompanying James to Midnight Mass as one of the Gentlemen, and then will be back at the Abbey at 9am on Christmas morning with Ed; there are just two services that day, Eucharist at 9.30am and Festal Matins at 11.15am. It is a big commitment for the parents and it can mean a rather later lunch on Christmas Day. But it’s all part of the Christmas ritual which they love. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

***

Christmas Events at the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin

• 20 Dec: Shoppers’ Carols 12 noon, 1pm & 2pm; Express Carol Service 3pm

• 21 Dec: Abbey Carol Service 3pm

• 24 Dec: Crib Service 4pm, Blessing of the Crib and Lighting of Christmas Tree 5pm First Eucharist of Christmas (Midnight Mass) 11.30pm

• 25 Dec: Parish Eucharist 9.30am | Festal Matins 11.15am

For more details please visit their website sherborneabbey.com.

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