Historically the Festival of Christmas has been truly celebrated on Christmas Day (as we will do tomorrow morning). However, throughout the history of the Church, the Festival of Christmas, like the festival of Easter, has been celebrated with a vigil. The word “vigil” is derived from a Latin word meaning, “watchfulness.” Our English word “vigilant,” is another derivative of this word. Throughout the season of Advent, we were encouraged to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and to keep watch—that is, to be vigilant in preparing for the coming of Christ. Tonight, we see the culmination of the Advent season as we “keep watch” for Christmas Day.
In modern times, vigils have been used to commemorate or observe an important or tragic event or the death of a notable or significant person. They are usually celebrated in a muted and calm way, and often involve the use of candles.
In the Christian Church vigils have been used in very much the same way. However, the focus has always been and will always be on Christ. Traditionally the Christmas Vigil has been celebrated late in the evening so that the end of the service coincides with the changing from December 24th to December 25th at midnight. So, tonight, with Christians around the world, we gather once again at the Christmas Vigil, waiting and watching for the coming of Christ as a child in Bethlehem.
Our worship this evening is an adaptation of The Festival of Lessons and Carols service traditionally held at King's College, Cambridge, England, on December 24th every year. The Festival was first held on Christmas Eve, 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who at the age of thirty-four had just been appointed Dean of King’s College after experience as an army chaplain. A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons. While almost every year some carols have been changed and some new ones introduced by successive organists, the backbone of the service—the lessons and the prayers—have remained virtually unchanged for nearly 100 years.