This is a story about Christmas. About singing and long white candles and Christmas oranges. About bone-chilling cold and slow-moving vehicles. Let me tell you about singing Christmas carols as a child.
I grew up in Saskatoon and attended church throughout my whole childhood. My church was fairly traditional and much of our music came out of the hymn book when I was small. This meant organ and piano and soul-stirring four-part harmony, and the Christmas season was no exception. I loved when the directions were given to “turn in our hymnals” and we were led to that little section of the book that contained the most lovely songs. I loved to memorize the words and follow the notes that I did not yet understand. The richness of those lyrics were completely lost on me when I was young, but my goodness…have you every considered what the song “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” is actually saying??? Go ahead. Look it up…not just the first verse. The whole thing. Incredible.
There were 3 main musical events that I cherished, growing up in this community. The children’s Christmas concert, carol singing in the community, and the Christmas Eve service. These events make up some of my fondest holiday memories, and I see now how they helped shape me as a musician.
The Children’s Christmas concert was your classic, picture-not-so-perfect Sunday evening of cute kids, well-loved carols, and unexpected laughs. When I was very young it always had the staples – Sunday School classes each singing a song, dressed as angels, garland coiled into crowns on little one’s heads. Shepherds in bathrobes with dangling sleeves. A girl nervously cradling a plastic doll. A boy stifling giggles beside her, trying to look serious and fatherly. I made my rounds through all these parts.
But every kid knew that the best part of the Children’s Christmas program was after it was all over and we all got a brown paper bag filled with treats. Now, the treats were fairly standard – a full sized candy cane, some foil wrapped chocolates, a Christmas orange wrapped in a delicate square of green tissue paper – but this bag of treats seemed extra special. There was a different kind of freedom this night, and it was almost as if that freedom could be tasted in the contents of this bag.
We were up late on a Sunday night and we knew it. Our visiting Grandparents had watched us and waved from the audience and now stood around drinking coffee from styrofoam cups and visiting with other kids’ Grandparents. The usual restraint we would be expected to exercise went out the proverbial window and we switched between running around like packs of wild dogs (an activity normally frowned upon at our place of worship) and plunking ourselves on the floor, fancy dresses and all, contents of that delicious brown paper bag dumped out and rifled through. And the freedom…we would gingerly ask permission to eat something, expecting a “no” or an “only one” but the response was always something about it being our very own treat bag and to go right ahead! If we made it out of there with any treats left, our bags would be tattered and crumpled and my sister and I would fiercely protect our paper bags from each other. Something about these nights felt so magical to me.
In early December, our church would organize carol singing in the community. Now this was not your average group of church folk wandering through the snow on foot…no. Our church had a caroling wagon….yes, that is correct…..a wagon. This wagon was hooked up behind a truck and was outfitted with a sound system so that the carolers that piled inside could sing along to backing tracks with microphones and everything. It was like portable group Christmas karaoke…and it was amazing.
Oh, I remember the excitement of caroling week. People from within the church would sign up to sing, or to go ahead of the carolers on foot, knocking on doors (back in the day when people still answered their doors……you know what I’m talking about…..), inviting people to church and letting them know that the carolers were coming soon. This was a widely anticipated Christmas tradition in the neighborhoods surrounding our church, as I found out a few years later from a guy I dated in high school and university. He had grown up a few blocks from the church and fondly remembered his family standing at their door, listening as the truck slowly drove down their street. Sometimes families would run out with big containers of cookies for all the carolers to thank us. Sitting on that wagon, fingers and toes and noses frozen, hearts glowing as house after house, family after family waved and smiled to us as we passed… pure magic.
And my goodness…the cold. There were some years it was downright frigid. We would bundle ourselves up with wool socks and snow pants and layer upon layer, trying to keep warm in the dry, prairie cold. As cold as those winters could be, I don’t remember anyone ever saying it was too cold to go out. If it was caroling week, then a-caroling we would go. We would drive whatever route had been planned for that evening, then return to the warmth of the church where we would scald our tongues on too-sweet hot chocolate from styrofoam cups, toes tingling as the feeling finally returned.
I remember singing harmony by myself for the very first time on that wagon. I had the fortune of listening to my Mom’s beautiful alto voice, late nights at home with her guitar when she thought we were asleep, and in church singing those glorious hymns. One night as “Silent Night” began I sang out the alto part right into the microphone…and I distinctly remember thinking, right as I was singing “am I doing this right??”. I must have been about 9 or 10 years old. So many memories on those cold winter nights.
And last, but probably the most magical of all…..the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. Already buzzing with excitement and anticipation of what was coming the next day, we would put our best outfits on and drive to church knowing how special this service would be. The lights were low, the sanctuary filled up with people, and the service began. It was carols and greetings and the beautiful Christmas story, read straight from Scripture. It was tall white candles, dripping wax, and faces aglow as the congregation sweetly sang “Silent Night”. Even as a small child, this moment always brought me to tears. It was over so quickly…and though I couldn’t wait to get to Grandma and Grandpa’s, where I knew a feast awaited…all kinds of snacks and sweets and punch from a punch bowl (so fancy!) and my favorite…lefse…our Norwegian potato flatbread, soft and fresh, buttered and sugared and rolled up just so… even as a little girl, I remember wishing those “Silent Night” moments could last just a little bit longer.
Thanks for reading, and may your Christmas season be filled with the most beautiful moments and memories. Merry Christmas.