December 24, 2008

A Christmas Memory

This is not the Wassailers but it how I remember we sounded
(without me singing of course.)

The Carol of the Bells always moves me. It is not my favorite Christmas carol that would be "Good King Wenceslas", I guess there is something about the benevolent King that I identify with but we won't go there. The Carol of the Bells brings back a specific moment that happened every holiday season and that is still the star on the tree of my Christmas memories. Lets set the scene a bit:
My parents sang all their adult lives. They sang in church choirs, amateur shows and opera but the great love of their singing lives were the Wassailers. My parents formed a monthly singing group with several other couples in the Philadelphia area in the late 40's or early 50's. The group met once a month to share fellowship and to sing. They would do some sight reading but they also worked on specific pieces of music until they got the harmonies and timing just right.
My memories of the Wassailers are limited. These were grown up nights. Kids weren't invited and if the group met at your house you were trundled off to bed early.
There was one time of the year when kids got to participate. Remember the group consisted largely of of young adults, husbands and wives (with a few singles) in the prime of their baby bearing years. There were lots of kids. Everybody had 3 or 4 and many of the families got together for other events - the Fourth of July was big. But the one time the kids got to join the adults was at the annual Christmas sing.
Each year the group assembled at a local old folks home. Today we would call it a nursing home or an assisted senior center or something else less accurate. For this was were old people came to spend their last years. The building was a 3 story stone facced dormitory with row after row of small rooms. Each Christmas the Wassailers wandered the halls and sang carols for the men and women who lived in this bland institutional setting. We all put on our good clothes, my holiday adornment was a clip on bow tie, green felt cut like a holly leaf with 2 red fluffy berries, securing a freshly pressed white collar, grey slacks and maybe a coat depending on how hard I fought to not wear it. My sisters wore dresses or in later years stylish long skirts and blouses.
The group started in the large entry way with many from the home gathered in a semicircle around us. Wheelchairs and walkers outnumbered the ambulatory but the smiles ang grins were universal. After about a half hour of Christmas songs we started to walk the halls, strolling carolers we. We walked each floor in turn stopping only to pick a new tune and for one of the grown ups to give a pitch and count off the rythym. All the traditional carols were sung - The Holly and The Ivy, O Little Town of Bethlehem and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. This was in the early days of popular holiday songs and the Wassailers took Christmas carols as seriously as any other task they undertook. The sang the standards and they sang them very well.
To say we were a hit would be to understate our impact by a few orders of magnitude. The residents sat in their doorways or stood in the hall smiling and sometimes singing along for a song or two. The event brought not just holiday spirit but bright faces to a place that had little enough of either. The children in the group seemed to light up those faces even more. We walked and sang and smiled and nodded. We wished each individual a Merry Christmas and received the same greeting in return. To this day I remember the sense of satisfaction I felt as we walked. A satisfaction that came from knowing the I been part of something that brought joy to people who really welcomed it. If this sounds a bit Dickensian, it was. The place was depressing to look at, to visit and most certainly to live in (or so it certainly seemed at the time).
The strongest memory from these trips is the singing of the Carol of the Bells. The song is an intricate round that requires strong voices locked in rythym belting out holiday greetings, the greeting of the bells. Now the truth - I don't sing well, I love music, I grew up with it and it remains an important part of my life but I can't carry a tune. In the fourth grade I was asked not to sing in music class because I was messing up the rest of my classmates. On the Christmas trips I sang all the traditional carols with one exception. I nevery tried to sing the Carol of the Bells. I had no idea which part I was supposed to sing so I just walked and smiled and listened to the gorgeous sound of 30 or 40 voices raised in song. Singing for all the right reasons people sing -because it feels good and because it makes others feel good. I remember smiling at the guests and mouthing the "ding dong ding dong" at the right moment but singing nothing the would spoil the perfection of the moment.
I miss those trips, they combined music and spirit of Christmas in a way I seldom recapture these days. All our efforts to spread joy seem disconnected, we don't get the see the tots open the toys we dutifully donate. For the Wassailers connected face to face and we got so much Christmas joy from it you just wanted to burst. I cherish the memory and the Carol of the Bells that brings it back.
Carole and I hope that your Christmas is filled with family, friends and joy. We will be sharing our Christmas with friends including an overly excited four year old. We will have a great holiday and maybe listen to the Carole of the Bells (but not sing along).
Have a happy holiday whatever traditions you follow and take some time to think back on your Merry Christmas memories. I hope you enjoyed mine.
Note:It turns out there is a lot I didn't know about the Carole of the Bells. Check out the Wikipedia entry or this Carole of the Bells history.

Carol of the Bells

Hark how the bells,
sweet silver bells,
all seem to say,
throw cares away

Christmas is here,
bringing good cheer,
to young and old,
meek and the bold,

Ding dong ding dong
That is their song
With joyful ring
All caroling

One seems to hear
Words of good cheer
From ev'ry where
Filling the air

Oh how they pound,
raising the sound,
o'er hill and dale,
telling their tale,

Gaily they ring
while people sing
songs of good cheer,
Christmas is here,

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
On on they send,
on without end,
their joyful tone to every home.

Dong Ding dong ding, dong Bong

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At 6:44 AM, Blogger Dorothy said...

What a wonderful memory! I am Bob's older sister, and it was exactly as he describes it. This group of adults sang together monthly for more than 50 years! And the children who were raised singing in the "old folks home" came back to join their parents singing there for decades, bringing their own children as well. The "home" no longer exists. It was torn down some years ago. But what a warm and wonderful Christmas memory.


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