As it is the eve of December, I’m sure that most of you are eagerly tuning your dials to your favorite Christmas stations, and dusting off your favorite N*Sync or Mariah Carey album. Because after all, it’s not really Christmas without music.
In addition to providing the soundtrack for most of my Christmas memories, music was the central event for many of my Christmas routines.
Beginning in 5th grade, my sister and I (along with most of our friends) were in an audition-only children’s choir. And Christmas was a big deal for us. We sang in shopping malls, retirement communities, and churches, with concerts throughout the Christmas season. Our director was fantastic. She made music fun and challenged us to sing pieces typically reserved for adult ensembles.
I can still picture our practice room with its arched stage and rows of chairs. I remember our practice folders, packed with music and the anticipation of climbing the narrow staircase up to rehearsals. Even the carpools to practice were a joy – filled with laughter and, of course, music, as we ran through our pieces to get ready for that evening’s rehearsal. In that room, we learned descants and harmonies to traditional carols, broke into sections and memories our pieces of Carol of the Bells, and slowly, tediously, over the course of dozens of rehearsals and more than two years, learned all of the Ceremony of Carols, by Benjamin Britten. The words are with me still:
This little babe / so few days old / has come to rifle Satan’s fold.
All hell doth at / his presence quake / though he himself for cold do shake.
For in this weak / unarmed wise / the gates of hell he will surprise.”
In that room, music took on life – the songs became seared into my conscious and were no longer mere melodies, but living parts of my very self.
Even as I outgrew children’s choir, music remained with me. My public high school choir was surprisingly big on Christmas. Beginning in October, we would start rehearsal for the Christmas concert. Although pieces varied each year, the A Capella choir processed to a truly breathtaking arrangement of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and performed “O Holy Night,” featuring soloists from the senior class. As we would rehearse “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in the choir room, a stillness would come over the mass of high school students as we would sing those words. The perfect blend of harmonies would rise, and as the notes hung in the air, all would be still, if only for a second.
Years and years ago, a former choir teacher had a tree built for the choir – narrowing rows of semi-circles, reaching to the ceiling of our auditorium. During our Christmas concert, after each choir had sung their individual selections, the women’s chorus would fill the tree – row by row – each holding a small candle while the A Capella choir filled in on either side. The lights on the stage would dim and the audience would rise to their feet for the Hallelujah Chorus. What followed was a beautiful hymn-sing, let by the combined choirs, of nearly all the great Christmas hymns – Silent Night, O Come all ye Faithful, Away in a Manger, The First Noel – we sung them all, joined by the audience in magnificent, reverberating harmony.
Although it seems like my time of formally singing has (temporarily) come to a close, the music remains with me. Last year, to close the 11 o’clock Christmas eve service, the congregation joined in singing “Silent Night”. As the opening chords played, I looked around at the faces next to me and smiled. Without opening our hymnals, beautiful harmonies rose up – the same notes that we learned as children were still with us, rising to welcome the dawn of another Christmas morning.
It’s not really Christmas without music. On the night of the first Christmas, angels from Heaven announced the birth of the Christ and the sky was filled with a heavenly choir, praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.”
As this Advent season begins, I hope that your life is filled with music, and that with each note, you remember what this season is all about.