That’s me, on the right. Age 4! What on earth?! I am not sure how my mom convinced me that singing in front of people was fun. Clearly, my cousin on the left already knew this was not the norm.
Music has always been at the center of Christmas in all my memories growing up. My grandmother played all the favorites from the 50s and 60s–White Christmas, Burl Ives, Brenda Lee, Rudolph, and everything else. My mother played all the same music, singing along at the piano, and in my early years, had me up on stage singing, too. When my older brothers and I began playing stringed instruments, my mom had us learn Christmas carols to play together and took us to nursing homes and shut-ins to share the music. She also led a large orchestra of student string players in our local congregation at church every Christmas. Then there were piano duets, and auditions, and recitals, and performances, and concerts….every year.
Christmas was music. Always.
In the evenings at home, I remember playing cassette after cassette while dinner was cooking, or we were making holiday treats. I loved listening to Kurt Bestor, Manheim Steamroller, and the Osmonds Christmas albums. There was one year I found a still-wrapped cassette my parents had been gifted at a Christmas party back in the 70s that made the back ground music WAY more exciting. I mean, “Sleigh Ride” by the Osmonds was good, but Disco Christmas was off the charts in ridiculousness, still. When my sister put together a Christmas playlist for the family a few years ago, it was Disco Christmas that was a no brainer.
My favorite Christmas hymn is tied to a sacred memory. “Once in Royal David’s City” speaks to me. It always has. I love the moving alto singing part, and reverent words, but it was hearing it in Bethlehem in 1999 that wrote it onto my heart. I was a student at that time, living in Jerusalem. We had gone to Bethlehem and were in the Church of the Nativity and St. Catherine which is built on the site of the birth of Jesus Christ, and also tomb of the Holy Innocents. This is said to be the burial place of the infants killed by King Herod in an effort to eliminate the newborn “King of the Jews”. This church is also built on the grotto where St. Jerome spent 30 years translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. It is the first vernacular version of the Bible. I was overwhelmed at the time by the bustle of people, the smells of incense, and feel of a place I had never imagined. From St. Jerome’s grotto around the corner, I heard singing of a small group,
Once in royal Davids city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles, like us He knew;
And He cares when we are sad,
And he shares when we are glad.
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.
To be hearing familiar music in such a foreign place, and not at Christmas time, grabbed my attention and pulled my heart. As I peaked around the corner, I saw a group of elderly, white-haired men and women, singing reverently. The surprise and feeling of peace and comfort in that moment are cemented in my mind. I will never forget it, and nowadays, I can barely sing the hymn when the opportunity arises. It draws my heart heavenward, and I am grateful.
I love so many of the Christmas hymns and carols. Many of the words are so poignant and needed. They bring me comfort, hope, and joy.
With so much music so readily available now, I wonder if my own children will have music memories of the holidays. They are usually dragged along to my own concerts and performances with violin, which they seem to just endure. I hope that the spirit of the music will settle into their hearts in such a way that as adults, those memories will become sacred and help them to look heavenward and be grateful.