Thursday, October 18, 2012

Christmas and Music

My parents were not very "into" Christmas, not more than most families were in the '70s. We didn't have much money at all, so we didn't buy a tree. We cut down a short cedar tree in the side field, plopped it in a cinder block in the living room corner, put a white sheet around the base, and called ourselves done. We had several boxes of ornaments given to us from my grandmother, I think. The lights rarely worked. My brother and I fought over the best way to apply icicles:  I said to hang them carefully one-by-one. He advocated the throw-them-on-naturally approach.

And there wasn't much Christmas music in the house unless I played it on the piano. This was normal. We did have a boxy Motorola stereo cabinet, and my parents had a few of the old Firestone Christmas albums. I was usually the one who pulled them out and played them.

Then we moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and my parents decided we'd join a big Presbyterian church there. A big church with a gorgeous sanctuary, a large choir, a pipe organ, and an exquisitely beautiful Lessons and Carols Service every Christmas.
First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS

I sang in every choir I could there. I sat enraptured during each Christmas service, watching the singers process with their candles in the dark, hushed sanctuary. I memorized "Once in Royal David's City."  As I type, this very carol is playing on Pandora for me. The descant is soaring.

And just when I was old enough to sing in that fabulous adult choir?  I went off to college.  I went to a castle up on a mountain, wreathed in fog, complete with Tudor architecture, a Great Hall for dining, a Madrigal class, and an annual Christmas Madrigal Dinner -- an impressive event to which the wealthy mountain folk came. We sang "The Boar's Head" while a real boar's head went around the tables on a platter. The harpsichord played, the brass blared, the jester jested, and I sang my way through four years of wonder, magic, and pure joy. Every minute. I lived for Madrigals.
Carter Hall, Covenant College

(That's me on the left, my fellow soprano Kimberley on the right.)
When college was over, and I had mourned the loss of Madrigals, I moved back to Jackson and joined the adult choir, and the magic started all over again. Rehearsals for the Christmas music began in September, so the entire autumn was full of the music's beauty and my joy in it. We sang so much John Rutter and David Willcocks, and often parts of Handel's Messiah. All this music still dwells in me; I memorized most of it, I loved it so well. I joined a smaller ladies' group, and we sang even more Christmas music.

Jackson was filled with festive holiday events. First Baptist Church had a Christmas service very different from ours, complete with a stable and real farm animals. I preferred something more elegant, according to my tastes. We had Mistletoe Marketplace, a gathering of local stores and vendors selling their holiday wares, all in one place. They decorated and prepared for us, and for a small entrance fee, we could stroll among the stalls and prepare our minds for the wonders of Christmas to come. And above it all? Christmas music piped in and lifting us all into a festive mood.

Belhaven College each year presented their Singing Christmas Tree, a massive structure upon which their best singers stood, holding lights, and we listeners sat huddled on the ground of the Belhaven Bowl (their soccer field), wrapped in blankets, hot cocoa, and festive happiness. One year I heard my best friend from high school sing "O Holy Night" from atop that tree.
Belhaven's Singing Christmas Tree
My church's elementary school fundraiser each year, "Holiday Potpourri," (isn't that a cute name?) was even more fun. Various ladies decked out their homes in the finest of Chistmas decor and trimmed trees, served light finger snacks and hot cider, and invited anyone to come tour, for a nominal overall fee. One year a friend of mine opened her home. At one home, a silent auction would be given for the school. Through it all -- there was music, lots of gorgeous Christmas music. I could never get enough.

Christmas could not be Christmas without music, for me. And I think I have Biblical warrant for that. The angels announcing the Christ Child's birth were "praising God," and the shepherds afterward returned, "glorifying and praising God." If we are to sing of God's wondrous works, what more wondrous work is there, than His own incarnation?

Some people weary of us Christmas music lovers. Christmas music in September? In January, still? Think though -- without the birth of Jesus, is there anything in this world worth being joyful for? If He'd never been born, we would be on one big, wide road to hell. Why sing? Why live, even? His birth -- that single event -- is God's way of saying to the world, "I'm rescuing you. Hang in there. Even the bad can be made good. There is hope."

So I sing, and when I can't sing, I listen to others do it. I sing for joy that we have hope, because of a squirming baby born over 2000 years ago. To believe that is to believe in miracles, in magic. And I do.


  1. If this is what you post in October, I can't wait for December!

  2. My husband's youngest brother, Scott Smith, went to Covenant and was in the Madrigals as well. Not sure of your age, but know you're younger than me. Scott's.....hmmmm...49, I think now. Did you know him then, I wonder???

  3. Do you know Melissa's hubby? What a coincidence!
    I LOVE this post and it makes me feel so happy that I am already listening to Christmas music in my car! I am going to go to a fun Christmas show with a friend from school, too. She's a singer like you.
    You should submit this to a magazine, MK. It's so joyful and sweet! You look like both your girls in that photo!

  4. Thanks, Pom :) Y'all are both kind. And yes, apparently I know Melissa's brother IN LAW :) We went to college together for 4 years and sang together in many groups. He's a great guy.


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