Sunday Christmas and MoTab Singing

I am one of those lucky people who, along with 60,000 of my fellow fans, will be attending one of the three nights of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert next week. This is a family tradition, starting from when I was old enough (8 years old) to attend the concerts with my father. My mom sang in the ‘MoTab’ for twenty years, from the time I was six until I was twenty-six, and this 15-20 hour week commitment on her part has my dad saying he was a “bishop’s wife” for twenty years. In fact, my mother’s singing in the choir was one of the best feminist examples I could have had growing up in my very traditional family, an example where my stay-at-home mother shared her non-maternal talents outside the home, and where my sole-provider father cared for all the children, tucking us into bed on weekly rehearsal nights (every Thursday, many Tuesdays, and more when they were planning for an event, tour, or recording a CD), and getting us up and ready for Church early on Sunday mornings. Annual choir tours were three weeks long, with my mom, and sometimes my father, leaving for Australia, Hawaii, Eastern (then-communist) Europe, Western Europe, the Southern US states, and many more places to be missionaries for the Church through music.

I love the Choir. I love each director and what he brought to the Choir. How I used to thrill when the men of the choir would file into the Tabernacle, singing in unison, “Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel.” The Christmas concert has changed a lot over the years. The Orchestra at Temple Square has been added, much to my delight. Having the Christmas concert at the Conference Center has allowed it to become more pageant-like, with dancers and special guest singers and narrators, generating DVD sales and bringing tens of thousands to the concerts, although with over 1 million ticket requests, most who register in the free online ticket lottery come away disappointed.

As proud as I am to have watched my mother participate and give service in this way, there is one part of her career that I don’t remember fondly. And that’s Sunday Christmas. The first time it happened was in 1988. I remember the heavy storm that hit that Christmas morning. Christmas at our house was delayed since my mom had to be up at 5:00 to record the live broadcast for Music and the Spoken Word. She wouldn’t typically be back until 11:30 or later, but this time she got caught in the storm on her way back from that morning’s broadcast and her car was stuck. The house stood in stormy gloom, presents under the tree long waiting for my mother to return and get Christmas started. Hours passed, and my dad left to see if he could help get her car unstuck in the heavy weather. After the afternoon wound down and chaos set in from both parents’ absence and visiting relatives running around the house, my siblings and I wandered toward the tree and unwrapped our gifts without our parents there to see it, most of the family’s experience of that holiday sacrificed on the altar of her Choir calling and the live broadcast that called her away that Christmas. I was young and enamoured by the powerful storm, and I received my gifts all the same, but I still vividly recall my mother’s absence that day. In our home Christmas could not be the same without her there. There were at least two other Sunday Christmases I recall where similar events were repeated as my mom performed at the live Choir broadcast instead of being with the family on Christmas.

I know it is pretty selfish and self-pitying to be thinking about one stormy Sunday Christmas of my childhood that was less than ideal while my mother served in her calling in the Church. I realize that there are many worse things that could happen to a young child on Christmas. But what is also silly about it is that every time Christmas falls on a Sunday, the Choir has had to perform a live broadcast to a small and dwindling audience, made up mostly of Choir and Orchestra on Temple Square members’ families who have made the journey downtown to support the mandatory performance. Despite the record number of concert goers, I’ve heard the report of the performers themselves: only a few adamant and dedicated tourists make it out that early, and performers are required to attend all performances. Holding a live broadcast on a Sunday Christmas disrupts 470+ families (360 from the Choir, 110 from the Orchestra, and more for other performers such as the bell ringers).

For the record, Music and the Spoken Word does not have to be done live. The Choir does pre-recordings sometimes before they go on tours or when they have other conflicts. It is simply that Christmas morning is not considered to be enough of a conflict to merit a pre-recording of the broadcast, despite all the extra time in rehearsals, CD recordings, and concerts that happen in the preceding weeks when the Choir is already together and in uniform, and a 30-minute broadcast done at one of these gatherings could save hours of commute time and preparation.

So this year, Christmas falls again on a Sunday. I’ve had a vast array of experiences on Sunday Christmas, and I’ve attended 3-hour blocks of church where stake presidencies have insisted on sticking to the correlated (non-Christmas) lessons and even declared that ward choir programs were prohibited from sacrament meetings. I’ve had years where it was only sacrament meeting, and so much music was provided by the choir and congregation that it filled my soul with Christmas cheer. But whatever my family decides to do for this Sunday Christmas, I can tell you there will be one place we won’t be: the live broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word scheduled in the Conference Center. Even though my mom has long-since retired, I feel I owe it to those families to stand up and say that Choir, Orchestra, and Bells members should be at home, or at Church, with their families this Sunday Christmas. I love them enough that I would like them to have this gift of family one Sunday every 5-11 years when it also happens to be Christmas.

[ETA: Update 12/8/2011: The live broadcast on Christmas morning has now been cancelled. You can read more here:]

What are your favorite and not-so-favorite memories of Sunday Christmases? What will you be doing this year on Sunday Christmas?


Alisa is a professional adult educator and corporate manager who enjoys spending time with her husband and son.

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31 Responses

  1. EM says:

    Did not know that the choir members performed live on Christmas Sunday. What a huge sacrifice! It seems that it may be more of the “vain traditions of our forefathers” routine, which is too bad. I have to say though that I really do enjoy listening to them, but I wouldn’t have known if it were live or not – pre-recordings would suit me just fine. The best Christmas Sunday meetings have been just one hour and full of music, which I just love. Some have been the 3 hour block dictated by over-zealous Bishops or SPs, and I’ve never attended those meetings – and why would I, it’s family time and that’s more important.

  2. Miri says:

    That’s a really crappy thing to do to performers and their families… I can see the sort of romantic appeal for someone who wanted to go see the live performance Christmas morning, but I don’t think that’s a good reason to deprive so many families of their Christmas morning (especially in light of how few people actually attend). Kind of lame for the choir of such a family-obsessed organization.

  3. Jessawhy says:

    I’m so sorry, Alisa, that you had to go through that traumatic Christmas as a child. It’s too bad they don’t change that tradition going forward.

    Christmas is such an important time to be with family. Sigh. Here’s another reason I’m glad my husband isn’t in the MoTab.

  4. Angie says:

    My mom is currently in the orchestra. She didn’t join until we were all out of the house and setting up our own holiday traditions…BUT, I still am really bothered by the level of commitment that is expected from this VOLUNTEER group. Sometimes it really does go over the top. I’ve watched my mom battle bronchitis and pneumonia and still attend all the rehearsals and performances that are required at this time of year. I do think that the ‘powers that be’ could work to allow the members of this group to have a little more balance between sharing the gospel with others through music while still having time to maintain family traditions and relationships. I feel like they want these musicians souls and then some during the holiday months. It’s just too much.

    • Marilyn says:

      I am a member of the choir and I have never felt I HAD to be to anything. I have chosen this opportunity to serve and still think I balance my life by choosing my family first. No one is twisting your mother’s arm to be in the orchestra. She is there because she wants to be there and many people are standing in line for her position if her family is too selfish to give her the gift to be able to share her amazing talent.

      • Alisa says:

        Marilyn, I need to remind you of our comment policy if you’re going to post here. It is simply inappropriate for you to resort to name calling or judging others.

        Angie says her mother will be there. She’s just saying that it is an unfortunate decision.

      • spunky says:

        Wow, Marilyn. I never had a negative thought, experience or opinion of MoTab till I read your comment.

  5. Davis says:

    There are sacrifices in life. They don’t let missionaries come home for Christmas. I agree that it makes Christmas morning not much fun, but clearly these people desire to serve this way, and have made that commitment.

    If they don’t like it, they can always resign. Giving up a Christmas once every 7 or so years is just part of the commitment. Maybe family members could go and serve someplace that morning also.

    Sacrifice is part of life. If they don’t want to make those sacrifices any more, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of people ready to step up and take their place.

    • Angie says:

      Sacrifice is one thing, and it is often necessary. However, I don’t think one’s health or destruction of family traditions should be something that is expected of members of this group, especially when the Christmas morning broadcast is so sparsely attended. Most of the members of the choir are older, and as I recall senior missionaries are given quite a bit of leeway with how they serve and how to make it fit within their family structure. They are definitely not required to abide by the same rules as an immature 19-year old – which is as it should be.
      If the ONLY sacrifice that was required was Christmas morning once every 7 years, that would be one thing, but the required sacrifices go FAR beyond that. Again, this is a volunteer organization of adults, not 19-21 year olds who are still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. The members of the choir should be treated and respected as such.

      • Davis says:

        This isn’t a calling – Although lots of people involved think it is. It is voluntary. There is nothing more irritating than someone telling you they cannot have a calling in the Ward because they are in the choir.

        They know the rules going in. Complaining about whether they are strict or not is fruitless unless you are actually a participating member.

        It is pretty clear that the people involved like being in the MoTab enough that they will abide by the requests made of them when they joined. Again, if they don’t want to abide by them, then they can resign.

      • amelia says:

        None of which means anything about whether this is a decent practice and something the church should be asking of its choir members. The fact of the matter is that the church uses the choir to build part of its public image. It does so on the volunteer labor of hundreds of people. The fact that those people know the rules and abide by them or else drop out doesn’t change the fact that the church (especially a church that claims that family is of the utmost importance) should recognize that this particular practice is invasive into what should be family time and disruptive of family tradition and the opportunity for a family to celebrate together what should be one of the most sacred holidays of the year.

        No amount of “they chose to do it in spite of these requirements” argumentation will compensate for the fact that the church is requiring something of these people that is invasive and unnecessary. It could get essentially the same effect (a beautiful recording of a Spoken Word episode to broadcast) for no cost to itself and very little impact on people who want to attend a live broadcast on Christmas morning, while greatly benefiting its choir and orchestra members. It chooses not to. That’s inexcusable, no matter how much the choir and orchestra members go along with it. Organizations have responsibilities to their members. In this matter, the church is shirking its responsibilities to its members. Of course, I don’t find that all that surprising. As I pointed out before, the church pretty regularly chucks aside its “family first” rhetoric when it’s in the church’s benefit to do so.

      • Alisa says:

        Davis, the Tabernacle Choir is definitely a calling, complete with setting apart by the laying on of hands. They are set apart as part-time missionaries for a decades-long mission. Letters are sent to local leaders saying that no other church calling is to interfere with Choir service (although my mother faithfully served in many other capacities her entire 20 years).

    • Amelia says:

      The fact that “sacrifice is part of life” doesn’t make it ok for the church (or any organization) to ask any sacrifice it wants to ask. Nor does the fact that other people will volunteer to fill vacated spots make asking any sacrifice ok. As the OP shows, these people already make plenty of sacrifices to fill this volunteer position. And, as the OP also shows, there are simple solutions to this problem that the church uses on other occasions, so the only explanation for their not doing so is that the church values its “mission” more than it values choir & orchestra members’ time with family on such an important holiday (of course the importance of Christmas as a holy day in the LDS church is debatable).

      The fact is that for the church, family is first except when it comes to balancing church & family. Then the church comes first. Every time. This is just one more example among many that makes that dynamic clear.

    • Davis says:


      Your same argument could be used as a reason to cancel Sacrament Meeting – or any other Church meeting. I don’t see any of the requirements as being invasive and unnecessary. The Church has a responsibility to people – and more people go to see the performance on Christmas day than there are people performing.

      It sounds to me like more people are being served by having the performance than by not.

      • Amelia says:

        Can you give me a source for the more people going to see the concert than those performing? the OP implies that’s not the case, but rather that when the Spoken Word falls on Christmas Day Sunday, it’s sparsely attended.

        And my point is not that anything which potentially takes away from time that could otherwise be family time is bad, but that there should be a balance. It’s one thing to have regular worship meetings that people attend. After all, the church’s job is to provide a context for worship and access to ordinances, etc. But it’s another thing to require people to sacrifice what is in most people’s opinion undeniably family time (Christmas Day) in order to perform when there’s a reasonable alternative. And, for the record, I find a lot of the time requirements the church puts on its members through guilt and obligation invasive and unnecessary, but that reflects a simple difference of opinion. The issue at hand is not regular church meetings but something that is not a requirement, not a regular kind of worship meeting, but clearly an extra for both the performers and those attending. And it’s a tool the church uses to build its public image. In my opinion (and it seems in the opinion of others commenting here), it’s an invasion into what should clearly be family time. But, as I’ve said, no surprise. The church does an excellent job of instilling into its members the attitude that family is only most important until it’s in conflict with the church. Then you sacrifice family for church (time, sealings parents can’t go to, calling family members to repentance over differences of opinion, etc., etc., etc.).

      • Miri says:

        “Complaining about whether they are strict or not is fruitless unless you are actually a participating member.”

        That seems like the opposite of what I would think. If you’re the participating member, you made the choice to abide by the rules (ridiculous though they still are). If you’re a family member, you did not make that choice, and you sacrifice just as much as the choir members do. The original post was talking about how this required sacrifice affects the families.

  6. Angie says:

    I’m going to go ahead and vent –

    My worst Christmas was seven years ago. My high-school-choir-teacher husband was helping with the one hour, tri-ward Christmas service that was substituting for our normal Sunday meetings. I walked in holding our 22-month-old on one hip, our seven-month-old on the other hip. There were plenty of seats scattered throughout the chapel, but each time I sat down, I was asked to move, because the seat was being saved for someone else. After four times of this, I said loudly, “I guess there’s no room at the inn!” and went to the nursery for the hour of Christmas music. Still bitter.

    • mb says:

      The Sunday after my father-in-law died my bereaved mother-in-law went to church, entered the chapel and started to take a seat in a pew when the woman farther down said, “Oh don’t sit there, I’m saving it for my husband.”


      My mother-in-law, who was one of the most determined church-goers I have ever known, walked out of the chapel and went home.

      My personal policy since that time: anyone who wants to sit in my pew, anytime, go right ahead. I don’t save seats.

      • Angie says:

        Since I posted this comment, I’ve been thinking that I’m not still bitter. Instead, I’m determined – like you, mb – to always help others feel welcome and comfortable. There are moments when a small thing like a welcoming smile and a little scoot on the pew can mean so much.

  7. mb says:

    It sounds to me like you feel grossly cheated by your mother’s decision to participate in a choral group that included singing on Christmas morning. Do you think that, if your mother had known how wounding it was to you, she would have chosen to sing in another choral group instead? Or to postpone her time in the choir until you were grown? Most of the choir members I have known have been passionate about what they do and I assume your mom was the same.

    I’m also assuming that you didn’t tell her at the time. Most children are not able to articulate those sorts of things. Or did you, and she chose to continue anyway? I suspect that the experience has made a major impact on some of the choices you make now if you currently have children at home. Am I right?

    I’d be interested in your thoughts about how you respond in your own life when a responsibility you are passionate about conflicts with your children’s desires that you be with them for days or occasions that are important to them. And if it is different from what your mom’s was in this case, what causes that difference?

    It’s easy to blame the institution, but I’m not looking for whose fault it was. I am really interested in your thoughts about how a woman responds to difficult choices. Certainly we go to battle to fix wrong-headedness if we feel certain that an institution is requiring something beyond the pale of acceptability, but my question is not about that, but rather about the process of making the daily choices necessary in that period of time before the battle for change bears fruit.

    It would be sweet if all the choices we had were ones that dovetailed nicely into each other, but my experience is that it’s not that way, and that I have had to consistently choose between imperfect solutions in this imperfect life of mine. So I’m interested in why you think your mother chose to continue something she was passionate about when it shortchanged you and how you think that has influenced your daily decisions when you find that your passions collide.

    • Angie says:

      Wow. I think you are completely correct about the underlying principles at play here. It is not a bad thing for family members to be inconvenienced or to struggle to help an individual. For example, delaying Christmas gifts or sitting out a Christmas service in the church nursery won’t kill a person – although it may feel like it at the time 🙂

    • Amelia says:

      I think Alisa makes it pretty clear that she didn’t resent her mother’s activity altogether. In fact, she points out that she sees it as a valuable example, in her rather traditional family, of her mother’s passion for singing being important and her father’s willingness to take over childcare responsibilities to support her mother’s involvement in the choir. So while I think you get at important questions here (how does a parent balance their own passions with their responsibilities to their families; how do you make the daily choices necessary when responsibility and passion and commitments collide), I don’t see them as actually being all that central to the OP. The OP is about an exceptional circumstance, rather than a daily one. It honors the commitment and passion and hard work put into singing in the choir. It just questions whether it’s right for the institution to ask people to make this exceptional sacrifice, as opposed to the regular sacrifices made on a more daily and weekly basis.

      • mb says:

        I agree that this is not about Alisa feeling that her mother’s passion for singing in the choir was wrong and that she is proud of her mom’s following her passion. My question is about when one uncommon aspect of your responsibilities that come from following your passion puts you in conflict with other responsibilities that are important to people you love. Certainly the ideal is to make one set of responsibilities secondary to the other and to have each group of people (employer, institution, family, whathaveyou) be supportive of your choice, but it takes time to get those groups on board with that. And some of them never do. So that is why I am interested in Alisa’s thoughts about the choices and responses involved for her mother and now for herself when the expectations of the things/people/groups you are passionate about completely collide.

        She’s articulated well the fallout she felt those Christmas days. I’m interested in how she translates that into the choices she makes now when something uncommon and stressful about what she loves to do requires her to not be there for children or family she really loves who really, really want her there with them instead.

        I think this is a common human situation in this day and age for both men and women. It sounds to me like Alisa is very aware of it. So I’m interested in how she’s translated into her own life what she’s learned.

  8. Rissalicious says:

    We went to the Christmas concert two years ago. My dad (who is not LDS) found out and he and his wife stood outside on that Sunday of the concert looking cold and pathetic and decidedly not Mormon in their jeans, and the ushers let them in. My step-mom, who is not from Utah and her only interactions with Mormon have been our family, was blown away by the Mo-tabs and the orchestra. They made such a good impression on her, that she’s a lot more open about talking to us about our religion now, even though she’s perfectly happy in her own.

    And I agree, the members of the choir, orchestra, and those who work in the Conference center, should be able to spend Christmas with their families.

  9. Alisa says:

    Thank you everyone for responding. One thing I cut from the story, that perhaps now seems more relevant, was that several years ago when Craig Jessop was directing the choir, he announced that the leadership had decided to record the Sunday Christmas broadcast that year so that musicians could be at home with their families, only later to come back and tell the Choir and Orchestra that the decision had been reversed. A family from out of town had called up the Choir office and had insisted that it would ruin Christmas morning for their family to not be able to see the Choir that Christmas, and the Choir leadership caved to that protesting family and has insisted on holding performances on Sunday Christmas twice since (including this year).

    And, one final thing that I left out b/c I felt it was too identifying, was that the last Sunday Christmas she was in the Choir, she refused to attend that mandatory performance and be at home Christmas morning with family and grandchildren. Since she was retiring, there wasn’t much they could do to her for skipping it. Another musician member of my family was also supposed to perform that morning at the broadcast and also chose to not go to the performance, as this person was also soon to retire from the group and couldn’t be harmed by not showing up.

    I don’t feel “grossly cheated” by the one particular Christmas I mentioned. I just feel strongly, now that my mom is not even in the Choir, that I should use my experience to show the other side of the issue. If one protesting family can place a phone call and make 500 families re-arrange their Christmas every 5-11 years, than maybe one blog post can help those families who are now making the sacrifice.

    mb, I love your questions, and I am happy to respond to how they impact me. Having my mom have a half-time job outside of the home, sharing her talents, has been part of what has made me a feminist and see what good women/mothers can accomplish in the world. It was such a wonderful experience for her, and I believe my family was blessed by her participation in the Choir, absolutely. I love that she did it. I think I am still being blessed by it, after all these years.

    Now I don’t have the choice but to work for a living, and eventually after 8 years of marriage, I decided to also become a mom even though I am the sole provider in my family. I have a lot of concerns and guilt over it–my son has special needs. But, I know that my husband can learn to be a good SAHD while he continues to look for work. I learned this from my own dad’s example of his nurturing when tucking us into bed, getting us ready for church, and the like. He and my mom had to be somewhat interchangeable as circumstances necessitated. Their example has been a blessing to me. But, because I was able to and because I think it’s important, I did agree to take my career off the fast track so that I can be at home a couple of days a week and so I can take vacation time or lunch time to attend nearly all of my son’s therapy and doctor appointments. So I have made career sacrifices to be there for my child, and I have stretched myself fairly thin, but I believe it’s honoring both of my commitments, to my family and to my employer.

    I’d never fault my mom for choosing to sacrifice one Christmas when her children were very young on the altar of the Choir, but I feel that the sacrifice was unnecessary and that leadership could have chosen differently.

    • mb says:

      Thanks for responding to my questions and also clarifying your response and adding pertinent details.

      I think one’s sense of frustration is always exponentially heightened when a step in the right direction by the ” leadership” group is suddenly reversed mid-stride and never subsequently attempted. The fact that the identity of the specific persons who made the decision is anonymous heightens that frustration further as it leaves those affected with no specific person to whom they can appeal for reconsideration. So thanks for adding those details.

      It sounds, also, like you’ve taken what you learned to heart and are utilizing it in thoughtful, conscientious ways. I appreciate those insights. That adds further depth to your post.

      Again, thanks for responding.

  10. Susan says:

    It appears that Alisa’s kind and justified request for more respect for family time was heard! Victory? Or will it be reversed? Or are people listening? 🙂

    From the MoTab official site:

    “In order to give the Choir, Orchestra, and all involved in producing the weekly broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word well-deserved time to be with their families, there will be no live broadcast on Christmas Day. Instead, the Christmas Day program will be pre-recorded on Thursday, December 22 in the Conference Center. The Conference Center auditorium will open at 8 p.m. and the taping will be open to the public.

    Once the taping has begun, audience members will need to remain in their seats until the taping is over (about 30 minutes). Unlike regular rehearsal nights, children under 8 will be accommodated in the Media Room until the taping is completed. On Christmas Day the pre-recorded program will be shown in the Conference Center Little Theatre at 9:30 a.m.”

  11. Alisa says:

    Susan! I just went there and saw this update! I am thrilled by the news that these hard-working volunteers will get to spend this Christmas with their families. Thank you for pointing me to this. I will make an update to the post now.

  12. kmillecam says:

    I love that there is an update that they will be pre-recording it now, Alisa. I don’t know why they didn’t do this years ago!! I hope your post here had something to do with raising awareness 🙂

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