Van Chaplin and Mark Sandlin
I am standing on a snow-covered Tennessee mountain, waiting to step inside one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. This isn’t my first pilgrimage to the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols at The University of the South in Sewanee, and I know it won’t be my last. For half a century, Southerners of all faiths have traveled to the university’s All Saints’ Chapel for an evening of scripture readings and traditional carols.
As the doors open, I join the waiting crowd for what has to be the most polite concert rush imaginable. We hurry to our seats and settle in. The two-hour candlelight service is based on one first sung at King’s College in Cambridge, England, in 1918—fitting for a church as steeped in history as All Saints’. The geographic and symbolic heart of the university, the chapel incorporates elements of world-famous churches—the stained glass windows of Notre Dame in Paris and the tower of Saint Mary the Virgin on the Oxford University campus in England. As if the chapel itself weren’t breathtaking enough, students and community members decorate it every Christmas with boughs of pine and spruce, bittersweet vines and sumac berries, roses made from dried ginkgo leaves—all gathered from the mountain. The whole church smells, in a word, divine. Old friends lean over pews to hug hello, and then the service begins with music, a procession, and the swinging of incense.
I was in junior high when I first marveled at these stained glass windows, this glorious architecture, and the majestic sound of the choir and pipe organ resonating in this setting. Now, as an adult, what I love most is the purity of it. Because as much as I enjoy the flurry of family activities during the holidays, the desire to “produce” Christmas can be overwhelming. That’s why I love this place, high on a mountaintop, where I can quietly welcome the season with reverence and joy.
Editor's Picks: Sewanee Inns and Dining
Monteagle Inn and Retreat Center: This 13-room inn has wonderful gathering places and serves a gourmet breakfast. monteagleinn.com or 931/924-3869
Sewanee Inn: Lodge on campus. 931/598-1686
McClurg Dining Hall: The university’s cafeteria serves good food at great prices. sewaneedining.com
Shenanigans: A former general store with an art gallery hidden in back, it’s a popular hangout for lunch and dinner. 931/598-5774