The custom of holding a series of elaborate services on the eve of Christmas may be considered merely a special case of the general Ritualist predilection for midnight masses and vigils, described in an earlier entry. However, the festivities of Christmas Eve outstrip the vigils of Pentecost, the Beheading of St John the Baptist and even Martinmas in their extravagance. Racks of candles fill the chancel; clouds of incense spread their acrid stench; clergy whose dress is usually the soul of modesty suddenly appear at the sacristy door wearing a gold-encrusted chasuble, a biretta, and a cope handsomely embroidered with images of Frosty the Snow-Man. It is at Christmastide the the latent Ritualism of the modern Anglican church surfaces, like the fruiting body of a massive fungus that emerges from the earth only once a year to shoot forth a cloud of spores.
If you were to enter a Ritualist parish in the days leading up to Christmas Eve, you would see a flurry of disordered activity, with minor functionaries running hither and thither, organists carrying piles of atonal music for their surpliced choir, and MCs drilling their frightened acolytes on the most recondite details of ceremonial - all under the watchful eye of the Ritualist priest, who has not slept for three weeks and wishes that someone else would write his sermon. By the time the traditional fourteen masses of Christmas have been completed - beginning two hours before daybreak on Christmas Eve and ending at noon on Christmas Day - the Ritualists will have worked themselves into exhaustion. Yet their dissatisfaction with the details of the services will ensure that they will redouble their efforts for next year, for it is certain that something will have gone wrong: perhaps a hastily trained acolyte made an incorrect genuflection, or perhaps a choir member sang Warlock’s “Adam lay ybounden” while everyone else was singing the setting by Boris Ord.
Christmas Eve is a time of great suffering for Ritualists, but they have only themselves to blame: in a properly ordered church, there would be no need for decorations, music, or vestments, and even the need for a newly composed sermon could be circumvented by reading from the works of the eighteenth-century Latitudinarians.