Celebrate the South

Jon Meacham on a Sewanee Tradition

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author reflects on the Festival of Lessons and Carols, a stirring Advent celebration

Photo: Courtesy of the University of the South

Perhaps it’s the intoxicating smell from the incense and the riots of mountain greenery. Or maybe it’s the moving sight of the bloodred cassocks and the flowing white surplices of the choir. Or it could be the potent mix of old hymns and ancient scripture, the great thrill and tumble of words from the story of the Fall in Genesis to the epic prologue of the Gospel of Saint John as the evangelist unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation. Most likely, it’s all of this, and more, that make the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols in Sewanee a moment of eternity in the midst of the rush of temporal things.

In the hush of the sandstone All Saints’ Chapel on a Tennessee mountain-top every December, in the Gothic solemnity and affecting splendor of a fall dusk, visitors come from across the South to experience classic services modeled on the choral majesty of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England.

The setting, like Sewanee itself, is unlikely. Founded in 1857 by bishops of the Southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church, the University of the South was decimated by the Civil War only to be resurrected during Reconstruction as a small but mighty—and enduring—bastion of the liberal arts. Nestled on a 13,000-acre domain on the Cumberland Plateau, Sewanee feels like a kind of real-life Barchester, though you may be forgiven for thinking it more like Brigadoon—a seemingly mystical place that appears to have more in common with a beatific vision of what a college should be than with the rough-and-tumble of the twenty-first century. Some professors and undergraduates still wear academic gowns to class, and doors are left unlocked for years. Waterfalls pour off wooded cliffs; music from student parties echoes softly through the tiny town. “It is so beautiful,” William Alexander Percy once wrote, “that people who have once been there always, one way or another, come back.”

Often, understandably, for Lessons and Carols, an Advent tradition since 1960. “I look from afar,” the cantor sings in the service’s powerful opening moment. To which the choir swells in response: “And lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth.” And there, improbably but surely, no matter your beliefs, there is light in darkness, and Sewanee is still, and whole. sewanee.edu

> See more ways to celebrate the South.