Monday, November 22, 2010


When I was a boy, we would go to my aunt's, my mother's sister's house, in early December every year for the family Christmas party. It was only an hour away in Reading, MA, but people didn't travel such distances as offhandedly as they do now. I got to see my cousins and my eccentric Uncle Loring. A dual major in physics and violin at Yale in 1948, Loring worked at one of the original high-tech companies on 128 and had a houseful of geek wonders: a combined ham radio and weather tower in the back yard, a home video studio as early as 1967, an enormous electronic organ, a room with an entire wall of electronics someone said was a computer. He would pull me aside to give me news on the sly about my father, who he had always liked.

We would sing along to Loring's overdone accompaniment, more usually winter songs like "Let it Snow," or Silver Bells" than proper carols - Loring was known to not be especially religious, and just didn't "get it" about the difference between carols and songs. His children were mortified, but then, we were all mortified by anything our parents did at that age.

But on the way home, we would sing carols - my mother, her mother, her Aunt Sal, and I. My brother was younger, and I think fell asleep pretty quickly. We sang only carols, Selma and I the melody, my mother and grandmother the alto. The other three knew all the verses, and I learned them too.

I know what memory really is. I know that this could only have occurred 1960-65. I remember my grandfather sometimes being at these parties, so my grandmother would of course not have ridden with us those years. My heart tells me we sang the whole hour, but my mind says that is unlikely. If the weather was bad, singing would likely have been intermittent for the driver. I would have been 7 in 1960, and no matter how much of a prodigy I was I was unlikely to have held a melody against harmony even with help at that age. It may never have all happened properly in any single year.

Yet in my mind it happened every year, always lovely harmony, always the four of us, always the whole hour. It is overwhelmingly the fondest memory of my childhood.

I sang in the choir and learned the bass parts in high school. I created simple harmonies to those carols my choir missed, and have half-seriously said over the years that I no longer know the melodies. Also half-seriously, I have threatened to request "Once in Royal David's City" when I am in a nursing home and the youth group comes around.

So I required a wife who felt the same of course, though I didn't realise the importance at the time. You laugh, but it is true. We both wanted to parent children and read to them aloud, to share books with them - and we sang in the car, especially at Christmas. Because so many other things are implied by that vision, they just might sum up the foundation of our marriage. Those flowers only grow in special soil.

Searching for Christmas carols to post, I found that YouTube has lots of highly-arranged carols, cute kids singing carols, "interesting" versions of carols, and singers showing off their interpretive skill on carols. We like those just fine, certainly, and have stacks of vinyl, tape, and CD's of choral Christmas, Swedish Christmas, guitar carols, Mannheim Steamroller, Appalachian Christmas, Mahalia Jackson, contemporary Christian carols. There's not much of just singing carols. You see below, in fact, how far afield I had to go to find - Just. Singing. Carols.

For this particular carol, my Aunt Sal remembered an additional verse from Straw School - where she went, my mother went, and I went after for elementary grades - now an office building. I have never seen it anywhere. Perhaps it was written locally, or found by a teacher in a newspaper. It has sat in our carol book unknown for 30 years, and likely forgotten almost a century total. But with the internet, perhaps it holds on just a bit longer.
Where children pure and lowly
Pray to the Holy Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee
Son of the mother mild.
Where charity stands watching
And hope holds wide the door,
The glad dawn breaks, the glory wakes,
And Christmas comes once more.

I mean for you to sing along, or hum if you are shy (or from New England). That's what it was made for - not for performance, but for you.


Kitten said...

Loring was known to not be especially religious, and just didn't "get it" about the difference between carols and songs.

I'm not sure I really understood the difference either until I worked in a grocery store one winter. The "songs" got old after just a couple repeats, while I found that I could listen to the carols much longer without tiring of them. The songs were cute and there wasn't anything wrong with them, but I found an aspect of worship in the carols that the songs were just never intended to have.

Donna B. said...

That was lovely. I especially enjoyed the baby in the congregation. (No sarcasm intended.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

When we first went to the Lutheran Church when we were 23, there were only about 10 children in the whole congregation, 0-18. One of the mothers described feeling self conscious when her daughter was born and was crying in church. A few of the elderly ladies came up after, quite misty, saying "It's been so long since we've heard a baby cry in this church."

It's a matter of perspective. I'll bet babies cried when Moses came down with the commandments, too.

Donna B. said...

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone reading here that I'm not a religious person at all. But I am a family person and most of my family is religious so I'll respect that.

But that doesn't mean I have to like everything every church I've been to has done.

One in particular wanted to herd my mother and my new baby sister into the new soundproofed nursery they'd just built.

That would have been OK with me if they hadn't made it a rule that I couldn't go in there too! I was too old.

Too old for the "nursery" but not too old to throw a wall-eyed fit and refuse to go to church at all unless I could sit in the nursery or my mother and sister sit with our family in the congregation.

Both the elders of the church and I got our respective ways. My parents brought me to Sunday School, but none of us attended the service following for several months.

I have no idea what would have happened had we not moved soon after my conniption fit.

The church my parents chose in our new town did not have a nursery.

No one has ever accused me of being any sort of role model for anything, but I still prefer places where babies and children are welcome over those where they are not.

And I've found over the years that babies and children are welcome at all the best places. (Even the best bars :-)

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Great memories, AVI. Unfortunately no one in my family could sing a note!

Carolyn said...

My dad's favorite Christmas carol was actually "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem." He did know the difference between carols and songs, although perhaps he didn't choose to acknowledege it at our yearly family Christmas party. He was quite an expert at playing dumb. As for his not being relgious, I am in the not particularly enviable position of having heard what he said about fifteen minutes before dying on Christmas Eve, which was something like, "I just wish people would look down at the earth and see that fighting is wrong and that we all need to live together."

That's religious enough for me.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I didn't mean to sound as if I was criticising him particularly on that score. I liked him greatly, Carolyn, and I may have "misunderestimated" him as regards songs and carols. Nor would I insult him by taking his last comment as an expression of his full religious understanding - those summations are good in the movies, but few of us get the luxury of preparing a one-sentence summation just before we die. We have to hope that our general comments are wise enough that they might pass muster as final words.

In the Arts-and-Humanities Tribe that we grew up in (counting both family and cultural circles), the sentiment of getting along and not fighting is rather the default religion now. I think the hope is to identify the stripped-down version of faith, the important core worth keeping, letting the rest go. But I don't think that works, ultimately. It ends in ideas that sound like mere platitudes - hardly objectionable in any way - which are actually disguised accusations against people who advocate for anything more specific.