When we had a blended family of five teenagers, we treated them to travel at Christmastime: to ski in Sun Valley or the French Alps, or to Mexico and the beaches to swim. Fun times all, but as the children left to make their own households at holiday time, I decided to stay home and return back to the most important part of my Christmases as a child: the music.
From the time I was 3 when I first sang in the children’s church choir, to glee clubs in school, to adult choirs, and finally, to adult madrigal groups of 15th and 16th Century music, Christmastime meant the most beautiful Christmas music from everywhere around the world. I had formed a neighborhood madrigal group and from that and all the other singing groups I joined as an adult, I had compiled in my files a good list of Friends Who Sang. These were not the types who stood around the piano and belted out “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and the like, but serious singers, who could sight-read music, had lovely voices, and remembered most of the ancient carols and Christmas music of the church and the public realm. I even had a few tenor friends who were paid to sing in their churches, good tenors being the most valued, and scarcest voices among the four vocal ranges. Had I personally known a counter-tenor, the rarest of the rare, I would have paid HIM to come to dinner. But Alfred Deller was dead and the principal singer from the gorgeous Philip Glass opera “Akhnaten” was ‘way above my price range.
In December of 1997, I decided to give a different kind of Christmas party. From my list of singers, I counted how many I could fit around my dining room table – 14 – and how many sopranos, altos, tenors and basses I knew who might like to sing for their supper. I invited a dozen people (my husband sings so the two of us made 14) to come a few days before Christmas, and to bring their voices with them. They all happily accepted, postponing their shopping and gift wrapping to spend a night in song. For the most part they didn’t know each other before they came, but musicians speak a language all their own, and after a few songs, we were a happy, completely cohesive group.
Sitting around the dinner table – without so much as a minute of rehearsal — we sounded pretty darn good. All the preparatory work was worth it to me when we gathered in the library beforehand for cocktails and the first few songs. The house literally rang with Christmas music! It was glorious, and it was live. The evening was so successful that I did it again for several Christmases. I decorated my house to the hilt, cooked for three days, and lit fires in three of our six fireplaces in my historic New England house.
We would always start in the library around the Christmas tree and then move into the dining room to sit at the table. At each place there was a Christmas songbook. We continued singing through the dinner, a cappella, our throats moistened with wine, ice water, coffee and, for those who could handle it, post-prandial liqueurs. I don’t remember needing to repeat a song, we knew so many different ones. After dessert we moved into the music room, where I lit a new fire, and we stood around the piano singing our favorite parts of “The Messiah” to finish up the night. No one had to worry about social distancing, masks or hand washing.
In recalling those sublime evenings long ago, I am so sad for those who cannot gather together to sing at holiday time during this dangerous pandemic. Let’s hope that next Christmas, if we’re not traveling to faraway places again, we’ll be able to sing together (not necessarily a cappella –) live, in person, without masks and distancing.