COOKING A CANTATA BY TEMPLATE (Create Your Own Service of Light)

Long before I was creating cantatas for publishers, I was helping to create them for the local church. While we all love to sell our published work, we recognize that, for a variety of reasons, churches may need to create a Christmas program from scratch. Using the anthems you already have in your library (perhaps supplementing with a new title or two) and carols from the hymnal (for congregational participation), you too can cook up a cantata!

Let’s get our ingredients together. The first thing you need is a theme. For this example, let’s use “light.” Now you need to figure out how many songs you need based on how long you want your service to be. Will there be a sermon, or music only? For most of the major cantatas, publishers use around eight anthems.

Next, let’s look at the nativity story scenes:

Old Testament Prophecy
The Angel’s Announcement to Mary
The Journey to Bethlehem and the Birth of Jesus
The Announcement to the Shepherds
The Journey of the Wise Men

That’s five anthems. Perhaps you want an opening instrumental prelude or processional, or a carol and a prayer. How do you want to end? Will you be using a closing blessing/benediction to send your congregation back into the world to share the good news along with a final carol? Will you close with a carol? You may be nearing eight anthems.

There are two ways to move forward. You need scripture to tell the story and you need music. You can start with either one. Let’s start with scripture.

Using your concordance, look up scriptures associated with the word “light.” You’ll be surprised how many there are. Don’t forget related adjectives, verbs, synonyms, and antonyms (bright, shine, darkness, shadow, star, night, lamp, candle, sun). Some of these can be joined with the scriptures that tell the nativity story. Plug all of these where they might fit into your outline. A resource like is helpful to look at parallel translations to find one that fits your congregation’s worship style.

Now let’s look at music. Traditional carols will likely work best where you want the congregation to join in on something that’s familiar. The service opener and/or closer are great places. Consider whether you plan to include children’s choir, solos, senior adults, ensembles. Do you want handbells or other instruments? Which anthems in your library fit these needs?

Now review your anthems against the scriptures you’ve chosen. It’s always nice if the lyrics reflect or amplify the narration.

You add responsive readings along with your scripture, either from the hymnal or prayer book, or create something new. You can use one narrator/reader or several. You might add a bit of drama by having characters in the story read the scriptures or narration. Remember: The story itself never changes, but there are countless ways to tell it. You can be creative and still remain true to the events.

Do you want to add visual components? Think about the mood of your particular theme. In the case of “light,” do you want to start the service with dimmed lighting to recreate the feeling of “the people walking in darkness?” You could light a candle with each narration leading up to the birth and then light the large Christ candle. Or you could keep the sanctuary dim until the moment of the birth and have a procession of the lighted Christ candle held high for dramatic impact. Before the final carol, you might “share the light” in a congregational candle lighting.

Here is a template I’ve created to give you some ideas, with a few scriptures and possible congregational carols to get you started. (You would still need to search your library for anthems.) You can use a similar template for any theme you might choose (joy, peace, comfort, lessons and carols, wonder).


THE LONGING FOR LIGHT (Old Testament prophecy)
Isaiah 59:9-10, Isaiah 42:1, 16
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

THE PROMISE OF LIGHT (the angel’s announcement to Mary)
Luke 1:26b-33; John 1:9
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

THE INCARNATION OF LIGHT (the birth of Jesus)
Luke 2:1-7; Isaiah 9:1-2
Away in a Manger
Good Christians, Now Rejoice
O Come, Little Children
O Little Town of Bethlehem

THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF LIGHT (the angels to the shepherds)
Luke 2:8-16
Angels We Have Heard on High
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
How Great Our Joy

SEEKING THE LIGHT (the wise men follow the star)
Matthew 2:1-2, 8-12
We Three Kings of Orient Are
As with Gladness, Men of Old

RECEIVING THE LIGHT (for congregational candle lighting)
John 12:46
Silent Night, Holy Night
Love Came Down at Christmas

SHARING THE LIGHT (for benediction/blessing)
I Thessalonians 5:5, II Corinthians 4:6
Joy to the World!

PROCLAIMING THE LIGHT (congregational carol)
Matthew 5:14-16a; Ephesians 5:8
Go, Tell It on the Mountain


Editor’s note: Please enjoy these selections from Pamela Stewart..





Pamela Stewart is a lyricist and librettist with over 200 published works.
In 2000, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure commissioned her to write a song cycle for chorus and symphony. Twice performed at Carnegie Hall, Sing for the Cure made its European premiere at Royal Festival Hall in London in 2010 and was recorded with Dr. Maya Angelou as narrator. In 2013, her song cycle for piano, solo violin, and men’s chorus entitled Tyler’s Suite debuted, benefitting the Tyler Clementi Foundation. Collaborating composers were John Bucchino, Craig Carnelia, John Corigliano, Nolan Gasser, Ann Hampton Callaway, Jake Heggie, Lance Horne, and Stephen Schwartz. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded the grant for the Suite’s recording. Her choral pieces have received both Editor’s Choice and Merit Series awards from top choral music distributors, and have been honored by Creator Magazine’s “Select 20.” Ms. Stewart lives in Austin, Texas.

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