An usher was escorting visitors to a seat in the sanctuary. As they walked down the aisle the usher inquired, “Clapping or non-clapping?” You can stir up some hot mess debates about clapping in the church, especially when the clapping follows a musical selection. Congregations have been applauding children’s programs and Choir cantatas as we roll through this season. Applause breaks out every Christmas season, even in the most formal of congregations.
I think we should add applause to our Christmas celebrations.
A brief history of applause tells us that it became a more formalized cultural convention in the early days of the theater. Roman theater audiences, for example, were told “Valete et plaudite!” “Goodbye and applause” at the end of every performance, which was the ancient equivalent of today’s “Give it up for “Your NSU demons” by an announcer.
Given that the theater was the only place in those days where you could gather the bulk of the people, politicians also used applause as a form of early polling data, gauging the crowd’s reaction when they entered the venue and took their seats. Once, when the Roman emperor Caligula attended a performance, a certain actor received more applause upon his arrival than had the emperor himself when he arrived at the venue. The maniacal emperor Caligula reportedly muttered (while fingering his sword, no doubt), “I wish that the Roman people had one neck.” Whether it’s in an ancient theater or in a modern arena, the strength of applause is still the thing that can make or break a performer or a politician.
The Romans, in fact, had three categories of applause that further make its connection to the sounds of the material world. “Bricks” was the flat-handed clapping of polite applause, while “roof tiles” or the clapping of cupped hands meant that the audience liked you a lot. The best type of applause, however, was the sound of “bees” — a cacophonous buzz that included not only clapping hands, but shouting voices as well. Listen to a modern audience clapping and you can definitely tell the difference between the smattering applause that sounds like raindrops and the full-throated roar that sounds like thunder. In Europe especially, synchronized applause is common.
And applause is usually accompanied by vocal acclamation, i.e., cheering.
One part of the Christmas story reads: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another,
“Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”