Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Christmas Gift

I received a splendiferous gift this Christmas from Bob and Patty. It was totally unexpected, practically blew me away and didn’t set them back too much. For this Christmas, they passed to me custody of our old Christmas caroling file, complete with assorted annotated songbooks and comprehensive notes. This file contains papers collected from some dozen years of caroling beginning in – my guess is – 1961, when I was 8. Each year, Pete, Tom, Pat and I, along with various neighborhood friends, went door to door singing Christmas carols one night during the holiday season. I hadn’t seen any of these papers for decades, and assumed that they had long been consigned to the dust bin of history. When I first got the package, I paged through the documents with a kind of awe, like Indiana Jones discovering some lost archaeological treasure.

The gem of this file is the remains of the wonderful 1937 publication, Christmas Carols, co-written by the famous Dutch-American author and illustrator, Hendrik Willem van Loon, and Grace Castagnetta. (Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, was the very first winner of the Newbery Award in 1922.) Loon also provides the magical illustrations, every one of which I remember from my childhood. (Somehow Van Loon managed to get a lot of windmills into his Christmas scenes.)

Aside from the misty-eyed stroll down memory lane, this “file” revealed a phenomenally meticulous – almost obsessive – attention to detail in order to bring Christmas joy to the neighborhood. (I can see from this file that at a very young age already I had developed a penchant for making lists.)

The first thing that strikes even the casual peruser is that we couldn’t simply sing the same set of songs at each home, but felt compelled to specifically select songs for each family, as if that household had some particular spiritual need or affinity that we wanted addressed. This practice had an early beginning, as shown by the atrocious spelling of the names of our neighbors. In Ye Christmas Piano Book of Christmas Carols Made Easy to Play or Sing (I’m not making this up), we had written the name of each target family on the top of the page of the carol we were going to sing. We did all right with Davis, Hall and McHale, but got into trouble with the name Burgess (spelled “Bergerest”) and Chalfont (“Shelfond”). Elsewhere, the “Grams” stand in for the Grahams.

Had the detail ended there, it wouldn’t have been all that remarkable, but this is only the beginning. We made written lists of all the homes we were going to and what songs would be sung at each. Various song parts and groups are identified. We listed who of our group were to be “Pages” and “Kings” in “Good King Wenceslas.” People are assigned other parts – all recorded in the notes – for “The First Noel,” “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” “Christmas Is Coming” and "All Come All Ye Faithful.” On one sheet, “hummers” are identified for “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

And it goes on. Someone created a handwritten comprehensive Christmas Carol index, which lists for each carol every songbook in which it is found and the page. Later, when we added instruments, we listed who was to play what instrument for each song, along with other details. Here’s a note for “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”: “instrumental intro, Pete and Gal [Tom Gallagher] (7th fret for Gal) on acoustical guitar. Crescendo with a special ending.”

And then, as if we didn’t have enough songbooks (I count 11), additional lyrics and musical notation are handwritten out, most of it on what appears to be Dad’s shirt cardboard. All the verses for “Good King Wenceslas” are written out this way. Another piece of shirt cardboard is dedicated to the lyrics and guitar chords of “Christmas Is Coming” – “FOR MIKE ONLY!” Somebody else took the trouble to write out the entire lyrics for “The Little Drummer Boy.” The musical notation of “Angels We Have Heard on High” “for Tom Gallegher [sic]” is set forth on a hand-drawn staff on a piece of notebook paper. And even more amazing is that the lyrics for “Stille Nacht” and “O Tannenbaum” are typed out in German.

And yet, for all our trouble, I don’t think we were ever very good, and mostly I remember neighbors fidgeting at their doorway waiting for us to finish. I’m not sure why we made all this fuss, and why we couldn’t just go around the neighborhood singing a few songs for the people we knew. I think it was mostly that, once all the planning started, it became who we were: this was the way we did things, and we didn’t really care whether it made all that much sense. Plus, there was this persistent belief somewhere way in the back of our heads that, maybe if we worked hard enough at this and brought in enough instruments and four part harmonies and whatnot, we might end up sounding half-way decent.

Brother Peter wrote us all a letter not too long ago that discussed the sad state of children today whose lives are totally managed by their parents. “Life on a leash” one commentator has called this phenomenon. Incredibly enough, our Christmas caroling project had absolutely no parental involvement whatsoever. Except for an offer of hot chocolate and Christmas cookies afterward, we didn’t get much adult encouragement period. Like I said, we didn’t really sound that good.

One thing is for sure, if our Christmas caroling had been part of some adult organized program, maybe we could have gotten service credit for it, or listed it later on our college applications, but it would have been a lot duller, and we probably wouldn’t have stayed with it for so long. And the Christmas caroling certainly wouldn’t have been nearly as quirky, as weird, as creative or as memorable as we managed to make it just on our own.

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