Christmas in the Monastery


Christmas in the monastery is not the same as Christmas at home. The painful process for a young monk, of being weaned away from the warmth of family, home and hearth, is most deeply felt at Christmas time. Some of the measures the community takes ease the break, but none of them quite fill the gap. For instance, there are almost always a few boxes under the tree in the calefactory for novices and junior monks. These gifts are more symbol than substance, usually a more playful than practical gift. Opening them, though, in informal settings, brings a nice feel of camaraderie, and helps to supply new “family ties” for the beginners.

“Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.” The rich melodious four-part harmony of the Angel’s song has echoed through the silent monastery corridors with joy on Christmas Eve for over 100 years. A number of the monks consider this one of the most memorable moments of Christmas at Saint Meinrad. It is the signal that begins the Christmas celebrations. No one knows exactly when the custom began. Perhaps the custom and the music came from Einsiedeln. The story is told that all the music was lost in the great fire of September 2, 1887, and that Fr. Thomas Meier, O.S.B., a young musician of the Abbey, wrote out the parts from memory. For many years the “angels” were anonymous. The four of them moved from floor to floor in the old monastery in cucullas and with their hoods drawn up over their heads. In more recent years a group of between 12 to 16 make their various stops beginning with the door of Fr. Archabbot. The hushed group scurries from floor to floor ending up in the calefactory in front of the fireplace. A number of monks, already up and ready to go, wait there for the joyful announcement. The schola then moves to the church, where a goodly number of the faithful from the surrounding area and beyond, have already gathered, “Let the celebrations begin,” they seem to say. “Christ is born. Gloria in excelsis Deo.”

Midnight Mass, in keeping with a long-standing custom of the Roman Church, is an occasion of special celebration. The Archabbot is the principal celebrant. It is the concluding moment to the long preparations of the Advent Season. For the monks who carefully observe the rites of the liturgical year, Christmas is a pivotal moment between the Old and the New Testament. Before Vatican II, the ceremonies were rather elaborate with over 30 participating in the sanctuary. For a period in the late 1940s and early 1950s, WHAS, a radio station in Louisville, KY, broadcast the Mass live. Fr. Rupert remembers with particular pleasure the tense atmosphere after all was in readiness; the whole congregation waited for the stroke of midnight when the intonation of the first words of the Introit, Dixit Dominus Domino Meo, filled the church with song.

The scheduled services, Masses and Liturgy of the Hours, are the official monastic celebrations, governed by official bulletin-board signs from the superiors. Many other events take place because of the generosity of the brethren. It is almost all-volunteer work. The House Prefect, the Refectorian, the Sacristan may post signs requesting volunteers to help in the decoration of the House, the dining room, and the church. Chopping trees and delivering them is a major project. Trees are placed in the church, the lobby of the monastery, in the calefactory, and in the refectory. Decorating the trees becomes a community activity of sorts. All this preparation gets done in the short span of a few days before Christmas.

The community has tried manfully to resist the erosion of the Advent spirit so prevalent in our culture. They do that by waiting almost until Christmas before the hubbub of decorating begins. In recent years, one evening is devoted to decorating the tree in the calefactory. Hot chocolate is served and an effort is made to involve as many of the community as possible in trimming the tree. This promotes a familial atmosphere and nurtures the sense of community that Br. Marmion speaks of when asked what stands out in his mind about our celebration of Christmas. “I would have to say the spirit and fellowship that exists within the community during this time.”

Fr. Raymond has been stationed at Catholic University for some years, but he always returns for special community celebrations, including Christmas. He says, “Once I get back, of course, I usually help with the decorating and things like that.” For a number of years now, he and a couple of cohorts have taken on the responsibility for decorating the tree in the Refectory. When asked why he does that, he says: “It is a matter of entering into the spirit of the feast and the time. Of course, the liturgy, the communal prayer helps tremendously with that. Even the efforts at decorating help to realize the richness that we have in and through Christ, through what the meaning of Christmas is about, God’s love for humanity. I really get into the spirit of gratitude and gratefulness to God, and to the community with which I feel very connected and supported.”

Christmas cards are made available to the monks as needed. Fr. Eric is one who says: “Writing and receiving Christmas card messages are an important part of my Christmas celebration.” For young and old alike, the Christmas messages are a way of renewing connections with important people in their lives. The community itself receives Christmas cards in great numbers from family and friends. Many of them contain touching testimonials of love and support. These cards in recent years are carefully mounted in a kind of scrap book, which makes them easier to peruse and appreciate. All through the post-Christmas period, it is quite normal to see monks turning the pages of that special collection and making comments as they see the names of friends.

There is a kind of ebb and flow to the level of decoration and celebration depending on the personnel on hand. When Br. Dominic was home, for instance, there was much more decoration around the grounds than there are now. Br. Lambert for many years has had a special crib and decorations in the library. Some monks are much more outgoing than others are. When they are at hand more happens, even caroling in the town on occasion.

Christmas in the monastery is not the same as at home with Mother and Father and brothers and sisters around. The monks are not ashamed to say they miss their home, but they are quick to say that Christmas in the monastery is the next best thing.

Copyright © 2003 Saint Meinrad Archabbey