Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hanging on to Christmas

The way I see the world, Christmas lasts right through New Year's Day. I suppose one reason I can't let it go is that I'm never quite ready for it, so I spend most of the time before Christmas in a state of denial that lasts right up until December 24.

I'm usually still in bed at 9 a.m. that day when I tune in public radio's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College in Cambridge, England. The announcer solemnly intones a description of the service, the music, and the scene (it's 4 p.m. and the shadows are lengthening), and then comes the sound of one young boy soprano filling the chapel with the opening of "Once in Royal David's City." I always imagine the chosen boy, nervous beyond anything in his life to this point, in the moments before he sings. And he always sings like an angel. The hymn builds in strength and volume through five verses until the whole choir and the congregation have joined in and the organ has added both bass and treble, and when it all comes to an end you can hear people shifting position, probably from standing to sitting, and someone reads a Bible passage. I often continue listening, but none of the rest has the same impact on me. Christmas has begun.

When I think back to my childhood Christmases, I do remember gathering with the family to open presents, both on Christmas Eve (presents from the family) and Christmas morning (from Santa). It was nice, but I don't recall the glow or thrill that some people report. I never spent time paging through the Sears catalog to pick out a specific doll or dress or toy. My younger brothers were always eager to get on with the opening of gifts. They probably asked for toys they saw advertised on television. One year they snooped around and found their gifts--and thereby spoiled their own fun.

But my strongest Christmas memories begin when I was a bit older. At 12 or so, I began to play the organ for the elementary school girls' choir, and we worked a few Christmas carols into our repertoire. I played throughout high school, and we always sang the 11 a.m. high mass on Christmas Day. I came to love the music, and the performing of it. But the parish men's choir was my favorite; I would stay awake with my radio on to hear them sing at midnight mass. Finally, when I attended my first two years of college in my home town, I got to play for them as well. The music was beautiful, and participating in it was a glorious experience. I'm no longer a church-going person, but that music--a combination of Gregorian chant and lovely classic carols--is at the heart of my Christmas memories. It's why I love the annual Lessons and Carols broadcast and it's why the Christmas playlist on our iPod includes not only Willy Nelson and Barbra Streisand and Manhattan Transfer (and oh so many others) but also classical groups like the King's College Choir.

On Christmas Eve this year, I happened to leave the television running after the 10 p.m. news. NBC began to broadcast a tape of midnight mass from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. I went to turn it off, but something caught my ear. The choir was singing part of the mass, which I recognized as the Gloria. I didn't think I recognized the version. But suddenly I was singing along. Words and melody came out of my mouth though I swear they weren't in my head. I sat down and watched for a while. The service did not move me. But the music left me thinking about, or more accurately feeling, Christmases past and experiences that were an important part of who I was/am.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this memoir, I try to stay in Christmas mode well after The Day. And so I continue to revel in my Christmas memories and in the warmth of this year's particularly wonderful celebrations. I was planning to tell you about those celebrations today, in this post, but now that I've lingered so long in the past, that story will have to wait.

I hope you, too, have some special memories to warm your heart at what happens, at least here in Minnesota, to be a VERY cold time! 

-- Nancy

P.S. The heart ornament at top is one of a dozen hand-embroidered ornaments made for me by my mother shortly before she died. The tree with green ribbon was made by Jeanie at The Marmelade Gypsy, and the round "Froliche Weinachten" came from Connie at Far Side of Fifty. There's a story behind it


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