The work is divided into two halves, and five sections. In the first section, Welcome, a “matriarch figure” soloist welcomes the audience as the singers enter in an antiphonal processional, after which the work’s jubilant title carol, “Light of Hope Returning” follows:
For here is the bright fire burning, and here the old year turning,
So shall we stay to greet the day and the light of hope returning.
Next, in section 2, The Star, various carols explore the imagery of the star as a symbol of distant hope. These include a joyous setting of “Brightest and Best” with bluegrass piano stylings and fiddle, an a cappella setting of the Appalachian song “Bright Morning Stars,” and a subtle gospel rendering of the Christmas spiritual “Behold That Star.”
In section 3, At the birth, the audience experiences the joy of birth in several Nativity carols, including “Angels We Have Heard on High” (in an uplifting bluegrass setting), “In the bleak midwinter” (with a brand-new melody in Dorian mode), and culminating in “Lo, How a Rose,” in joyous gospel style with piano and saxophone.
After intermission, a haunting processional opens section 4, A Sign Opposed, which explores the opposition posed by the forces of Winter/Darkness/Tyrant to the forces of Spring/Light/the Child. King Henry VIII’s carol fragment “Green Grows the Holly” is the basis for a newly-written Winter carol that opens this section. The piece as a whole reaches its dramatic peak in a new musical setting of “Coventry Carol,” depicting the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s threat. But after this moment of greatest darkness, the “light of hope returns,” and the choir celebrates the fragile tenacity of life in the transcendent song “Holy World”:
O I have seen the beauty of a child,
born into this weary world —
Pure and new, placed into
the old and careworn hands.
Holy world, holy world, where sorrows are turning with joy….
Section 5 Parting opens with the new carol “Fare Ye Well, Come What May” in which the “matriarch figure” soloist returns to wish the audience well and to invite them to meet her again, at the next “turning of the year.” Then a jubilant reprise of the “Light of Hope Returning” closes the piece on a high note, followed by a rafter-raising recessional of the Christmas spiritual “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” that sends the audience on its way (and includes them in the singing.)
Uniting the work musically is a folk-like “midwinter motif” first played at the opening of the piece by the violin and cello, but heard thereafter in various guises, connecting one section to another. Other “connective tissue” is provided by poems and dramatic readings that appear a few times throughout the work, deepening the resonance of the themes. The British-American novelist Susan Cooper’s words are featured prominently, in both lyrics and stand-alone readings, as well as those of Julian of Norwich.