By Sarah White
In the Episcopal church, Epiphany (January 6th) marks the end of the Christmas holiday. I squeeze in this Christmas reminiscence as the sun sets on January 6th.
Evergreen garlands. Golden gleams of flame from beeswax candles reflected in brass candlesticks as big as walking staffs. Red velvet bows that tie the candlesticks to the ends of pews, lighting the way up the center aisle through the nave toward the apse. These are the first images to come to mind as I think of my childhood Christmases, celebrated at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Carmel, Indiana, in the 1960s.
A few weeks before Christmas there would be the “Hanging of the Greens,” a work party where choir members and vestrymen would twist evergreen clippings into loops of twine that hung between the floor-to-ceiling windows flanking the nave in our midcentury modern sanctuary. An A-frame hall of fieldstone, redwood, and glass, it managed to be somehow timelessly classical and yet frill-free. Only at the holidays did evergreen garlands in curtains and swags interrupt its classic lines.
My parents, my brothers, and I sang in the church choir. We were segregated into Girls’ Choir, Boys’ Choir, and Adult Choir. But at Christmas we all performed together: two services on Christmas Eve, and another on Christmas Morning.
Christmas Eve began with a regular communion service at suppertime, followed by the Anglican traditional “Nine Lessons and Carols” starting at 10pm. To prepare, the choir held extra rehearsals in the church basement. We gathered around a piano near the wall of vestments hanging in rows, black cassocks and white chasubles in descending sizes. We earnestly, patiently turned our various sight-reading skills and musical ears into traditional harmonies. Even if I was a third-class cadet as part of the Girls’ Choir, I was part of the Big Show at Christmas, and I loved it.
The Big Show began with a processional. After dressing in the basement choir room we exited the Fellowship Hall and enjoyed a view of the candlelit nave crowded with worshipers inside those modern floor-to-ceiling windows between the flagstone piers as we circled to the church’s door, where we waited outside in the dark. My father always gave the statue of St. Francis a little pat on his head for luck. We stamped our feet and blew on our fingers, waiting for the choirmaster to signal time to enter the church. A note from his pitch pipe—a hum from several dozen throats—and we’re off, singing acapella, something majestic like “Christians, Awake” or “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.” Through the tall red double doors and up the aisle we’d go, a pair of acolytes leading a parade arranged by height and gravitas. First to go two by two were the girls, then the boys, then the adults. Up we’d march in stately rhythm, headed straight for the garland-draped Christ on his cross. We passed rows of pews crowded with parishioners and adorned with candles that were higher than my head. A fragrance made up of damp coats and colognes mingled with the sweet beeswax of the candles as we passed.
Reaching the apse our twin columns would split left and right, circle to the outside aisles by the windows, now enjoying the view of the purple night outside. We maintained our measured pace so that we could reunite with our marching partners at the stairs to the choir loft. There we would quietly file to our places in the rows of folding chairs with oval rubber kneelers in front of each, arrayed so all could see the choir director, who doubled as organist. St. Christopher’s had a wonderful organ, capable of booming reverberations and angelic voices.
The “Nine Lessons and Carols” service celebrates the birth of Jesus by telling the story from the promise of the Messiah through the birth of Jesus, interspersing the reading of nine key stories from Genesis with the singing of nine Christmas carols over the course of two hours. Depending on the talent on the choir in any particular year, there might be solos for a particular girl or boy, flutelike voices echoing through the still air. Sometimes a violinist or cornetist would play. Always, the adult choir would fill in and the entire church would swell with song. It was heart-stirring to be in the middle of it all, and to be responsible for a small part of it.
For children, staying alert for two hours of this was demanding. Throughout the rest of the liturgical year, food and drink were strictly off-limits in the choir loft. Tonight we would be allowed Coca Cola during the readings between our carols. We were also allowed to stash a comic book at our chair prior to the service, to fall back on if the mesmerizing voice of Father Davis threatened to lull us to sleep. He had a voice like BBC radio, a voice like God.
In memory those years of singing in the choir run together, the tradition repeated each year with no variation. It’s a lovely memory, but hardly an anecdote. For a decade or more—roughly 1960 to 1970—each year I felt the same excitement at the site of the decorated nave, the same thrill at the sound of the three choirs’ voices combined, the same frisson of disrespect in pulling out an Archie or a Batman to help me stay awake.
All those years run together with the exception of one, when the ritual was disturbed. It was a hymnal that did it.
Our hymnals were tomes of substantial dimensions. Gold stamping on their buckram spines spelled out “The Hymnal 1940.” They emitted a satisfyingly musty smell. They were close to two inches thick and weighed nearly three pounds. For a child, they were unwieldy. But that’s not what caused one to plummet over the choir loft’s gleaming brass railing and plummet onto the bald man’s head below.
It was Stewart Davis reaching adolescence that did it. The preacher’s son, his hormonal brew had brought him that night to the stage where rebellion is required. Stewart was the one who caused giggling that made the choir director aim a stern glance his way, which caused me to turn just in time to see what he did. Stewart dangled the hymnal over the railing and then released it. While Father Davis intoned one of the Nine Lessons, all eyes in the choir loft with a direct line of sight watched the hymnal descend, pages fluttering. It bounced off the brass dish holding a stout beeswax taper at a pew’s end, then ricocheted onto the bald man’s head, then hit a kneeler. The sounds it made started with a clang followed by a thump, followed by a muffled thud, then silence. A small gasp ran through the choir loft as the bald man emitted a startled “ooph”. Father Davis droned on without a pause. Being Episcopalians, no one acknowledged the unpleasantness. The choir launched into its next carol, and that remarkable moment blended back into the backdrop of a decade of Christmases.
The service always closed with a recessional. As quietly as we could, the choir filed down the stairs from the loft and paired up for our reverse parade. To cover our sound, the worshipers sang “Silent Night,” continuing a hummed version until the choir director signaled that we were in formation. Then the choir launched into an exuberant version of “Joy to the World.” Carefully timing our steps so that our pairs would meet at the front in a turn as neat as a pair of Lipizzaner horses, the girls, then the boys, then the adults performed our final drill and exited into the night. The organ thundered to a climax, then fell silent. Parishioners filed out, congratulating the choir on its performance, and we all repaired to the Fellowship Hall for cocoa and, knowing Episcopalians, something stronger for the grown-ups.
I was always sad to hang up my vestment and saying goodbye for another year to the magic, and yes, the possibility that someday something like Stewart’s hymnal might once again break the peace.
~ ~ ~
Memory and truth are related but distinct from each other, as the following proves. I shared this draft with my brothers on Christmas Day, 2014. Brother Andy informed me that Father Davis left in fall 1964. “For many years the Christmas Eve services were celebrated in part by a retired Anglican priest from England…. I think likely his is the English voice you remember.” He added, “I remember hearing about the incident of the hymnal being dropped from the choir loft, but I was not personally there. That makes me think Stewart Davis was not involved, as I would have remembered his name being mentioned.”
Then, Andy dug into the journals my father kept.
On Thursday, December 22, 1966, he wrote:
Yule Activities—David sang in the boys’ choir at ordination of Fr. Hull. The Bishop in his mitre, and all the birds & beasts were there….
Someone (for a while I thought it was Dave) dropped a hymnal over the balcony rail. It hit a tall candle, bounced onto head – bald – of a parishioner. Boys’ choir, stringed instruments, and organist giggled.
Andy added, “Note that the hymnal dropping took place at the ordination service on Sunday before, not on Christmas eve.”
Being one who prefers not to let the truth get in the way of a good story – just like my father in that respect – I’m sticking with my memory that the priest’s son dropped the hymnal on the bald man on Christmas Eve. And thus is history written — and rewritten.