Brand building through storytelling

In search of the perfect Christmas service

Eleven Christmases ago, newly sprung from our corporate careers, Paul and I spent December 25 in the world capital of merrie olde holiday traditions–London, where Dickens penned A Christmas Carol and white lights shimmer on half-timbered laneways. Not until the Big Day, a brutally cold one, did we learn the truth about Christmas in London. The whole city shuts down, even the Tube. If you’re not gathered ’round the tree with your family, there are just two activities on offer: lunch and church.

Lunch was easy: we’d pre-booked it online at a glossy boutique hotel with nothing in the lobby except a designer love seat in the shape of Botoxed lips. Champagne flutes in hand, we sank into the plush banquettes and tried not think about what we were paying for the tiny, exquisite courses borne by black-clad waiters no thicker than asparagus spears. As we walked to church in a stiff wind, wishing we’d brought warmer coats, it seemed we were atoning for our decadence.

Religion is not our thing, but we’re believers when it comes to organs and choirs. For Christmas we wanted a celestial sound, which we expected to find in a gem of a church designed by Christopher Wren and recreated stone by stone after its destruction in the Blitz. An ideal setting, we thought, for joyous voices raised in harmony while bolts of melody streamed from the many-piped organ.

We might as well have been expecting Bob Cratchit to wish us Merry Christmas. No white-robed choir, just a female cantor in Birkenstocks and cable-knit sweater, banging on a drum and singing tunelessly in Latin. “I thought cantors were Jewish,” Paul muttered. We really knew we’d blown it when we found ourselves holding hands in a circle, summer camp style, and urged into–God help us!–a group hug. Where was the old-world ritual, the pageantry of Christmas Past?

We still had time to fulfill our Christmas fantasies. As luck would have it, we weren’t far from the Brompton Oratory, a monumental Catholic church with a world-famous choir and not one but three organs. “This is going to be good,” I said as darkness fell and we leaned once more into the wind. “Nobody does ritual and pageantry but the Catholics.”

Pageantry wafts from every carved and gilded surface of the Brompton Oratory. From our prime pew, we got a fine view of the choir, magnificently robed in scarlet and white. We saw them file down from the choir stalls, where they had just sung the previous service, and straight out the door. Stretching their legs, surely. Or ducking out for a smoke. No such luck. Of all the Christmas services at the Brompton Oratory, we’d picked the only one without music. And a dour service it was, with much talk of blood and suffering (nobody does that stuff like the Catholics). Back we wandered on deserted streets to the hotel bar, where we joined the other travelers with nowhere else to go–some already well on their way to killer Boxing Day hangovers.
Yesterday in Toronto, heading home from my last Christmas errand, I passed St. James Cathedral just in time to catch most of the festival of lessons and carols. Celebrants packed the place like fruits in Mrs. Cratchit’s pudding, but an usher found me a seat near the foot of the gleaming organ. The choir, robed in scarlet and white, could not have sounded more majestic. At least four officiants, each one more extravagantly robed than the last, wished us all a Merry Christmas as we filed out onto King Street. I had found my perfect Christmas service, five minutes from home. May whatever gods there be bless us, every one.

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