The great golden globe of the moon rose above the horizon as we came around the curve in I-95 headed home. His expression was slightly drunken, a laugh out of one side of his mouth and eyes askew. Too much eggnog? An excess of champagne? The old fellow was clearly jolly, as full of holiday spirit as we were.
We were on our way home from the Christmas Concert at Grace United Methodist Church in Baltimore. My Dear One had noticed an advertisement in The Sun, “Songs of Mary,” and what is more festive than seasonal music in a church sanctuary?
Music—and the chance to perform it—have always been at the heart of my Christmas memories. I went caroling in Cleveland Heights with my Girl Scout troop as a girl. I listened in awe to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recordings my father played on the hi-fi. I had endless tolerance for Alvin and the Chipmunks trilling, “Christmas, Christmas time is here, Time for toys and time for cheer…” I thrilled to the basso rumble of Thurl Ravenscroft (aka “Tony the Tiger”) grumbling “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch. You really are a heel…” (and later loved the irony that the tune’s composer, Albert Hague, played music teacher Benjamin Shorofsky on the television series “Fame.”) Every year I was glued to the television set to see Giancarlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and waited for Kaspar to explain “this is my box…” and the shepherds socialize: “Emily… Emily, Michael, Bartholomew – how are your children and how are your sheep? Dorothy… Dorothy, Peter, Evangeline – give me your hand come along with me…”
I remember vividly the first time I saw “The Nutcracker Suite” live. It was in Boston and close to the first time we attended a performance of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” at the Elma Lewis School of the Fine Arts that left my feet aching and my hands raw from stomping and clapping. The year that I worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, part of the Quadrangle in Springfield, Massachusetts, (and now the Michele and Donald d’Amour Museum of Fine Arts) I went to hear Handel’s Messiah. As the audience stood for the “Hallelujah Chorus” I was brought upright by a collective force rather than my own will.
Christmas is about all kinds of things for all kinds of people but I suspect it is about music for most of them—music and the granting of one’s heart’s desire.
At Emma Willard , the great motivation to make it through to senior year was to be part of Revels, an enactment of a medieval manor Christmas. The structure varied slightly year to year—depending on the size of the class and the range of musical and dramatic skills—but key elements included the Lord and Lady of the Manor, their guests, their servants, performing troupes of mummers and singers, and so on. I had my heart set on being a Lord and was thrilled to be assigned as the dashing escort to Wendy’s demure lady. Despite endless rehearsals, the parts were kept secret and underclassmen oohed and squealed as they recognized the players. Revels music became for me the quintessential soundtrack of Christmas: “On this Day,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Masters of this Hall/Sing we Noël.”
The other great moment of that season at Emma was Vespers. The service was a celebration more of spirit than religion; everyone belted out favorite hymns, the choir’s sopranos soared on the descant to “Angels we have heard on high”, and our featured piece was always something challenging and wonderful— once it was Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Then came the lighting of the candles: the congregation with flickering tapers filed out of Chapel and edged the geometric greensward, the Triangle, outside. The choir, given their notes, scrambled out of the loft, down the stairs, and onto the steps of the archway to sing “Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming.” I can still hear the alto part in my head even if I can no longer render it tunefully.
It has been years since I wedged some kind of Christmas performance into Advent; teaching, final exams, and the calculation of grades normally fill the first fortnight of December. This year, however, is the Year of Present Living so I dressed in scarlet jacket, reasonably-green scarf and Christmas-tree earrings and brooch and my Dear One donned a bright red tie, and off we went. Wreaths adorned the windows of the Georgian-style interior and choir and orchestra filled the chancel. Songs of Mary was a moving exploration of the idea of family, the birth of a child, and the angst that hides within that joy. Ancient carols bracketed the Magnificat by English composer John Rutter (b. 1945). The Handbells of Grace pealed out during the offering and sent out a “Christmas card” to all assembled after the benediction: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
It was just so…right.
We navigated the traffic on Charles Street, pushed our way into the flow in the Inner Loop, and finally headed north toward home, guided at the end by the happy and benevolent face of the moon. A short detour took us up Paradise Road to the crest of the hill where we stood gilded in the moonglow in the crisp night air. Paradise Road, indeed.
I write a Christmas letter every year and finish each one with a quotation, a poem or passage that seems to express something of the season as well as something about the year gone by. In 1988 I offered the closing of Louise Moeri’s The Star Mother’s Youngest Child. The story, and especially its end, has been on my mind.
The Old Woman sat on by the fire, rocking and grumping. She was aching tired but happy, in the strangest way. “Uproar,” she said, nudging the old dog at her feet, “what a day it’s been, what a day it’s been. What a Christmas —“
Then she noticed the other gift, lying under the fir tree. Strange she had forgotten to open her package. Now what had that Ugly Child found to leave her? She squatted down and drew it out, surprised at its great weight. But it didn’t rattle. Carefully she opened the string, and lifted back the paper. And as she did so, out came the sound of bells, and the sound of laughter, the light of a candle, the light of stars…
“I’ll keep it forever,” the Old Woman said.
Up in the sky, Star Mother had been watching for her Youngest Child to come home…
At last she saw him, trudging up the long slope of the great black night sky. She put on a shawl of moonlight and rushed out to meet him. “Well — how did it go?”…
Youngest Child sighed, and leaned his spiky, yellow head against Star Mother’s breast. “Oh, it was a lovely day,” he told her sleepily. “And I’m…so…tired…”
“Wait,” cried Star Mother, “Tell me about it…”
“It was — oh, Mother — “ Youngest Child yawned and looked around at all his brothers and sisters with whom he would now take his place forever in the sky — “it was enough,” he said.
Yes. It is enough.