Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Music in the Frigid Air, the Ghosts of Christmas Past (dedicated to my sisters)

You're on one side of the holly-and-ivy, Christmas music fence, or you're grimacing, arms folded on the other....or, yes, you're that one standing on the rails above, belting out the tunes on road trips and light-viewing expeditions, caroling even though you don't have the foggiest idea what wassail or figgy pudding is or why Jesus and Mary came sailing in on ships of three.

I love it, and I sing it....just not well.

I sang White Christmas at my junior high holiday concert. Dad said I was probably the third, maybe fourth best person there....then he paused to make sure he wasn't forgetting anyone.

My friend Christina dragged me to an impromptu audition. I tried to sing "Blackbird" by The Beatles for the new choir leader. I sounded like a young man going through puberty; I couldn't find the right pitch anywhere, though I manfully searched about for it. For some desperate reason, the teacher accepted me anyway.

I could have found that missing pitch or even gotten good probably if I had actually practiced "White Christmas" in front of my mother. Performing in front of others - not those jokes and silly dances I did in elementary school - was no laughing matter, she emphasized. Unfortunately, every time I tried to sing in front of Mom I giggled. The sterner she looked, the more I was tickled. Dad eventually told her to give up, that if I didn't want to practice and ended up embarrassing myself, it would be my own fault. I breathed a sigh of relief; I'd grown immune to embarrassment during my preschool years, so I went to my room to smugly sing to myself.

My parents were bravely there at the concert, and I was so nervous that, seeking comfort, I pointed out into the crowd at my best friend Michelli and sang at her. She smiled back encouragingly, but later probably wished I had pointed at some kid near the opposite end of the gym. Later, I performed in a trio, our choir leader filling in last minute for a girl with a cold. We sang "Joy to the World", and somebody was so far off key, we all skidded off into the frosty embankment of audience disgust. That tone-deaf individual? Our choir director! It made perfect sense why she accepted my audition.

Luckily, the concert ended with Dad playing several songs on his guitar at the request of my teacher, Mrs. Hillis. He revived the sorely abused Christmas spirit for everyone.

Vinca and Annie, my big sisters, could really sing, and both participated in the proper junior high holiday program. Mr. Owens, also the algebra/geometry teacher, ran it and held real auditions. (He sadly gave up directing it the year before I auditioned.) The production was put on in the evening for the community, not mid-day. It included musical performances and a holiday-themed play. There were festive sets and a huge, bright Christmas tree in the background. I remember being enchanted by the comedy, the music at intermissions and the general gaiety of the evening. All the actors and singers took a bow with Mr. Owens at the finale, and the audience actually stood and applauded gratefully, cheerfully.

Later my sisters both studied under a legendary choir director in high school named Ms. Freeman. She was a short, blond-haired woman and a force of nature, a quality-oriented task master. You did not talk about life outside music in the daily hour she owned. You breathed, sweated and dreamed music. The concerts that she coordinated were therefore brilliant.

My sisters were brilliant, too: in their big, poufy, satiny dresses with their big, coiffed hair and their big, powerful voices on stage in some vast auditorium. At my sisters' feet, in their audience, I learned to appreciate what they had learned to appreciate and sing! Songs like "I Wonder As I Wander", "Patapan", "Ding! Dong! Merrily on High" were just a few that I grew to love as my sisters' and their peers' voices gave testimony to the message. I first stood for the "Hallelujah Chorus" at my sisters' concerts.

Due to their influence, then, I have a great love and reverence for traditional carols, many no longer well known. My first carol love is "Joy to the World", of course, because I remember how my Dad played it for us kids, with a quick tempo and truly joyful, but my new favorite carol is an obscure one. It is based on a poem, composer uncertain, from the 18th century and is called "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree". Vinca gave James Galway's Christmas Carol to my dad some years ago, and I was thereby introduced to its gorgeous, profoundly spiritual lyrics on that collection. You can hear the Choir of King's College, Cambridge sing it HERE. It begins thus:

The tree of life my soul have seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree

Ah, I love that. I know who my Savior is.

In general I far prefer carols to popular winter jingles. I'm also old-fashioned in that I'd rather hear Dean Martin, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra or a really excellent choir sing them than Mariah Carey, Josh Groban or Kelly Clarkson. Still, sometimes inspiration, awe and reverence can be found in unusual places. I recently heard Celine Dion sing "O Holy Night", my husband's favorite, as we were finishing our wine with supper. By the end, I was in tears and ready to fall on my knees. And the very first time I heard the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan's collaboration on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman/We Three Kings", it became my forever favorite arrangement.

Audacious gal that I am, I dare to sing Christmas songs beginning somewhere near late November. It's the thought that counts, after all, and would you believe I accompany myself on my burgundy guitar? My playing is like my singing. It could use practice, better form, and the proper chords/notes might help, but I enthusiastically bang it out. My children think my rendition of "Feliz Navidad" is perfect.

The music of this season, whether I'm rambunctiously playing it or listening to it appreciatively, connects me to Christmases past and all the rich gifts of memory they bear, and, above all, to Jesus Christ the apple tree.


  1. Yes, I also prefer Christmas carols to "Christmas songs". And I, for one, always thought you sang very well, Hoodoo.
    Lovely post, made me nostalgic once again. I remember when Christmas was a simpler, calmer time, a time to slow down, sing carols, and enjoy the deep, somber wonder of the season.
    Ah, well...

    1. I'm decent, I suppose, in the music department. Thank you for teaching me to play the guitar, Papa; I love it this time of year.

  2. I loved this post. It reminds me why we sing and to Whom we sing, especially at Christmas.

  3. Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for a Happy New Year!
    Bring you Good wishes of happiness.

    Sorry for greeting you earlier,, just don't want miss saying this.
    By the way, I'm clotee. I am blogger too, and now try my best luck to open an e-store. Nice to know you.


  4. My sisters both sang in the school choir and one of my sisters talked me into singing in choir with her one year. I still remember the choir teacher saying "Please, just stand by your sister and move your mouth." lol. I do not care much for Christmas music, but if I am going to hear it I want to hear old Christmas carols. Silent Night is certainly the most peaceful song ever sung no matter what time of year.

  5. This had me giggling. God loves your voice, giggling, occasional key-shifts and all.


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