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Christmas Eve concert and service at Abbey Church

Decorations include a créche, flowers

The season is in the reason - discover that at St. Martin’s. Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s University

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At this time of year, Christmas concerts are almost as ubiquitous as holiday sales and flashing lights. Live Gregorian chants, though, are about as common as sightings of Rudolph with his nose so bright.

If you want to hear one of these rare performances, we know of only one place in the South Sound to go: St. Martin's Abbey Church on Christmas Eve.

The carol service, held just before midnight Mass, features the abbey's choir, which is led by Brother Aelred Woodard.

"We normally begin with some Gregorian chant, and then it moves out to things in some cases that are still wet on the page," said Woodard, a professor of religious studies at St. Martin's University. "We cover a wide variety of music."

The choir for this year's Christmas celebrations will include just two monks, along with members of the church community featuring both men and women. This year, many of the songs will be solos rather than the mostly choral offerings of the past.

What hasn't changed is the religious focus. Pieces on the program range from "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," a 1930s song written in the style of an African-American spiritual, to a duet from Hector Berlioz's "Childhood of Christ," a 19th-century oratorio.

There are plenty of opportunities for audience members to sing along, too, on such familiar numbers as "Silent Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful."

"We perform pieces of music and intersperse them with carols that everybody sings," said Woodard, who has been at the abbey for more than 40 years and has directed the choir for most of that time.

The concert and Mass typically attract a large crowd. Woodard estimates it's close to 250 people.

"Many people who aren't necessarily Catholic or who wouldn't normally go to a Catholic service could be attracted to this," said Brother Boniface Lazzari, an associate professor of Spanish at the university. "It's something religious to do at Christmas, which is primarily a religious holiday."

At Christmas, the church is festively decorated with poinsettias and a crèche or Nativity scene, he said. The decorations are all the more striking to regular churchgoers because during the Advent season leading up to Christmas, the church is kept plain, without even the usual banners.

After the midnight Mass, there's yet another special event, a spiritual love feast known as agape. The abbey serves sweet rolls and hot beverages.

Christmas carols with the St. Martin's Abbey Choir, 11 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 24;  Midnight Mass, midnight Friday, Dec. 25, St. Martin's Abbey Church, 5000 Abbey Way SE, Lacey, free, 360.491.4700,

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