First Church Natick Uses Its Victorian History to Invite Community into their Sanctuary
By Pastor Vicky Guest, First Church Natick
About 3:00 AM on January 13, 1874, a fire started on the second floor of a building in the center of Natick. If the winds had been calm, the damage might have been minimal. Instead wind-driven flames quickly spread throughout the town center claiming 35 buildings, including the sixth meeting house of First Congregational Church.
The church was quick to rebuild. Since 1875, the seventh meeting house of the First Congregational Church has stood on the corner of Main and Central across from the Natick Common. The building is not a traditional white New England church with clear windows. It is Victorian in style, constructed of brick with decorative trim and tiles, a tall steeple clocktower and large stained-glass windows. It is the perfect setting for a “Victorian Christmas.”
First Church Natick was inspired to create its own “Victorian Christmas” at a conference offered by the Massachusetts Conference and the Center for Progressive Renewal at Andover-Newton. The Reverend Jonathan Chapman of Westfield UCC in Killingly, CT led one of the worship workshops at the conference I attended. Each year in December, Westfield UCC welcomes the wider community into their sanctuary to turn back the clock and sit alongside church members in costumes from the Victorian period for a candlelit holiday service.
"Victorian Christmas at Westfield Church redefined the holidays for our sleepy, little town, and has become the primary way we connect to new members of town," explained The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Chapman,
Pastor of the Westfield Church. "While it feels like a show to some, its impact lasts through the year. Many who don’t have church homes return to us when they find themselves in times of crisis. It’s given our community something to be proud of and excited about, and has helped thousands feel more connected with our congregation. Our churches are desperate to try new things, often searching far and wide for an idea that fits when really the answer is right under our nose. For many of our congregations, their greatest asset is their historic building and longtime presence in the community. Victorian Christmas takes both of those assets and runs with them."
The idea was tailor-made for the architecture and the history of First Church Natick. The Welcome Team began planning its own “Victorian Christmas” for the first two Sunday evenings in December. One church member who is a talented woodworker created candle stands and mounted them across the balcony and at the ends of pews. Another member organized a brass quintet. The music director found a piano selection that not only dated from the Victorian period but that was also composed in Boston. An online search turned up diary excerpts from a 13-year old girl describing Christmas in Boston in 1875, the year that the church was rebuilt. The decorating team even found battery-powered candles for the Christmas trees to add to handmade crocheted snowflakes.
With the help of bonnets and top hats from Amazon, post-Halloween sales and the discovery that Christmas tree skirts can be turned into Victorian capes, the Welcome Team was able to outfit about 40 church folks of various ages and stages in appropriate garb. The Natick Historical Society received a grant to offer a Victorian ornament workshop and put together a display of Victorian Christmas cards which had been sent to Natick residents in the late 1800’s.
The Welcome Team got the word out with a little help from the local paper and enthusiastic volunteers who braved the chill, dressed as Victorian carolers. They greeted those attending the annual town tree lighting on the Common as well as welcoming home those getting off the evening train from Boston. Each year attendance at “Victorian Christmas” has grown larger. Many who have come have never been inside the sanctuary before.
There is no offering at the service because the church offers its “Victorian Christmas” as a Christmas gift to Natick and surrounding Metrowest. Poetry and carols from the period are allowed to carry their own “tidings of comfort and joy” with only brief introductory remarks. The readings from Isaiah and Luke are drawn from the King James version. The service ends as those in period costume pass the light until everyone in the congregation is holding a flickering candle as they sing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”
This final carol is particularly appropriate. It was written by Edmund Sears who served as the pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, the town just north of Natick. The carol reflects not only the troubled times in which Sears lived, when the country was on the verge of Civil War, but its message also grew out of his own struggle with mental health challenges. “Victorian Christmas” strives to create a space for anyone seeking “tidings of comfort and joy.” Sears’ words make room for everyone, including individuals and their loved ones who find the season difficult because of the stigma that too often accompanies mental health issues.
As is often the case, in giving the gift of “Victorian Christmas,” those who offer it feel that they receive more than they share. The buzz on the Front Porch before the celebration begins is fun and exciting, and the peace as the candles flicker at the conclusion is deeply meaningful. In a very real way, the blessing as the service ends sums up the whole experience. It concludes with words of another writer of the Victorian period, John Greenleaf Whittier:
Somehow, not only for Christmas, but all the long year through,
The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.
And the more you spend in blessing the poor and lonely and sad,
The more of your heart's possessing returns to you glad.
Pastor Vicky Guest can be reached at the First Church Natick office. 508-653-0971 or email pastor@FirstChurchNatick.org. A photo gallery of their Victorian Christmas event can be seen below.