MICHIGAN CITY – Carrying on a holiday tradition that began 11 years ago, First United Methodist Church will soon be taking another step back in time.
The church, with the help of members and other friends in the community, will again welcome in the season with its popular Madrigal Dinner.
To be held on Friday, Dec. 6 and Saturday, Dec. 7, the event re-creates a Renaissance feast similar to those held in the great baronial halls of England during the Christmas season. Last year the event sold out with 180 guests.
Set in 1519, the church’s community room is transformed into the banquet hall where a 12th Night Celebration takes place in the court of King Henry VIII. Guests enjoy a five-course meal, seasonal music and entertainment. all delivered with royal pageantry.
Bev Griffith, who began as director nine years ago, said about 80 individuals are volunteering to make the event possible this year – in the past as many as 115 have been involved.
They include First United Methodist’s Chancel Choir along with other singers and musicians. Countless others, including the church women’s group, seamstresses, an electrician, a local HVAC company’s staff that builds scaffolding; cooks, ticket-takers, clean-up crew, and others are needed to produce the popular fundraiser.
Children as young as 5 from the church and the community take part in the program while older youth act as servers.
This is the third year Nancy Nichols, pastor of the church since 2016, has been involved in the Madrigal Dinner. She plays the part of spiritual advisor for the king.
“A madrigal can be light-hearted, but there are also solemn moments," she said. "You get the joy of the season with a lot of humor, but also the depth and holiness of the Christmas story.
“What I love about it is that it brings together people from multiple parts of the community – people active in other churches, people not active in church at all,” Nichols said. “We have people that don’t see each other except once a year preparing for the Madrigal Dinner. We live in a world where people that understand life differently don’t always come together.”
Griffith called it "a wonderful experience for the church, giving volunteers a common goal to work toward. It’s been such a positive community-building experience. It’s a ton of work but a fabulous experience. It’s a labor of love for everyone involved."
She said the event began by chance because John Hall, a former First United Methodist pastor, had always had the desire to serve in a church that held a Madrigal Dinner, so parishioners took on the massive undertaking.
The event was also the vision of Lew Timberlake, affectionately know as “Mr. Madrigal,” who serves at co-director.
“Part of what the Madrigal Dinner does is it really focuses on our church’s creative mission outreach,” Nichols said. “We feed people’s souls, bodies and spirits in a special way, especially through this creative musical artistic expression. We help them find wholeness.”
Nichols said when she first arrived at the church, she discovered it reaches out to the community in a number of ways. Those include providing school uniforms, supporting Michigan City High School’s Open Door Care Closet, helping found the Open Door Health Clinic, being instrumental in the founding of city soup kitchens, and continuing to offer meals twice weekly.
In addition, the church places hats, scarves, gloves and socks on outside trees throughout the winter season for the less fortunate to take.
King Henry VIII is played by Jeffrey Baumgartner and Amy Black portrays his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Both Baumgartner and Black are lending their talents from Dunes Summer Theatre.
Patty Keller of Michigan City started last year as one of the singers.
“The performance offers a unique experience to the community that is connected to the holiday, but is also not a common occurrence,” she said.
“It is an opportunity to visit with friends and family around a delicious meal prepared for everyone, while listening to a genre of music performed live that one does not often have a chance to be exposed to. I consider it partly an educational experience.”
Another Michigan City resident, Dan McNabb, has been a regular attendee since the event's inception, and even participated in a skit one year. McNabb, former choir director at Elston High School, directed the Michigan City Messiah performance for 50 years at First Presbyterian Church of Michigan City.
“Any music lover who dates back to my generation will remember the madrigal choral groups in high school,” McNabb said. “The English madrigals are a delightful choral forum and are performed in the First United Methodist Church’s program. This Madrigal Dinner is of top quality and will be enjoyed by all.”
Chicago resident Julie Strauch started attending about eight years ago when her mother, Deborah Beien of Michigan City, began performing as a singer. Strauch now enjoys bringing her daughters, Rory, 6, and DeeDee, 4.
“I love going to the Madrigal every year. It acts as the official kick-off to the holiday season for my family. I love the combination of music and theater. They have some songs they sing every year, but they also change up the selections,” Strauch said.
“I am always surprised at the quality of the musicians. They sound beautiful and I know they put in a lot of hours to practice, especially for the solos. I also love seeing the comedic elements like the court jester, Sir Wally, and the King and Queen. Different actors take on these roles, but they are always funny and make it enjoyable for both adults and kids."
She said her young daughters look forward to the singalong carol at the end of the show, and she likes seeing the community come together to put on the event.
"You can see the pride and love everyone has for this production. I also think that Christmas can feel very commercial, and the Madrigal Dinner is the opposite of that. It isn't about selling anything, or furthering an agenda – it is just a time to sing, break bread, and be together before the business of the season takes over.”
Seating for the dinner begins at 6 p.m. with festivities beginning promptly at 6:30 p.m. The five-course dinner and program last approximately two hours.
Tickets must be purchased in advance by Wednesday, Dec. 4; the cost is $35 per guest and $240 per table that seats eight. Contact Sue Cassier at 219-362-1421 for tickets or visit the church website at mcindianaumc.org/2019/10/14/madrigal/. First United Methodist is located at 121 W. 7th St.