Ancient traditions fill modern souls

From the Hanging of the Greens to love feasts and a Longest Night service, Midlands congregations are reaching back to ancient traditions and ancient times to celebrate Christmas.

At Shandon United Methodist, congregants will gather in candlelight today and Sunday for the sharing of sweet coffee and bread as part of its 28th annual love feast.

Based upon the meals shared in the early Christian church, the love feast emphasizes the unity and love in the Christian community. At Shandon, the love feast includes lessons and carols and pieces by the festival orchestra.

"It is just such a beautiful and moving service that once people go, they want to go again," said MaryAnnCrews. "People don't want to leave it out of their Christmas celebration."

She recalled that the love feast started out as a one-time event, but was so meaningful to the congregation that it now takes up two nights on the church's Advent calendar.

Crews has attended most of the love feasts through the years as either a member of the chancel choir or the congregation.

"Eating together is such a wonderful way to fellowship together," she said.

In fact, early Christians in the Apostolic tradition called these love feasts "agape" from the Greek word for love. The Moravian Church in 1727 resurrected the concept of the early love feast and brought it to America. Since then, many American Protestant churches have adopted some parts of the Moravian tradition.

Another simple gathering on Dec. 21 will mark the Longest Night Service at Shandon Presbyterian Church on Woodrow Street and Trinity Presbyterian Church on Greenlawn Drive.

This, too, goes back to ancient times, even before Christianity, when the rising of the sun signals the end of the longest night and the beginning of longer days.

The Rev. Agnes Norfleet of Shandon Presbyterian said the liturgy created for the Longest Night is "mindful of the grief and stress that many bear during the Christmas season."

"While many of us bask in the holiday spirit of good cheer, the season of Christmas can be painfully difficult for others," she told the congregation in the church's newsletter.

The service, which will be held at 6 p.m. at Trinity and 7 p.m. at Shandon, will include the singing of Christmas carols, the reading of comforting scriptures, a brief meditation and prayer.

As part of its Advent preparations, St. David's Episcopal Church on Polo Road will hold two services Sunday and Wednesday that will allow people to visit 14 different creches, or Nativity scenes.

The 5:30 p.m. services, called "Stations of the Creche," are patterned on the Lenten tradition of Stations of the Cross, which feature symbols of Christ's journey to the cross. Worshippers who visit each of the Stations of the Creche will be led on a devotional journey with prayer, music and reflections.

The Rev. Bob Chiles, the church's rector, came up with the idea after his family creche, called the Happy Creche, was accepted for inclusion in Mepkin Abbey's annual display, said church member Karin Culp, who has volunteered to help set up the creches.

"I'm so thrilled about this," she said.

The creches run the gamut from traditional to playful, including the smallest made out of toothpicks and black-eyed peas.

They will be on display during the 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Sunday services and on Monday and Tuesday evenings by appointment through the church office, (803) 736-0866.

North Trenholm Baptist Church is among a number of churches that will attempt this holiday season to re-create the feel of first-century Bethlehem, the place of Jesus's birth. Its "A Night in Bethlehem: A Hands-On Holy Land Experience," set for 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, features the market, the census takers and other views of the little town that made history with the birth of the Christ Child.

Westside First Church of God on Delree Street in West Columbia will also re-create the ancient world in its drive-through to the first Christmas Dec. 20, 6:30-8:30 p.m.